Executions could return to Arkansas after court ruling

New execution dates for nine men on death row in Arkansas have yet to be named as of press time, but their attorney plans on filing an appeal petition after the state Supreme Court ruled June 23 that it is constitutional to keep the maker and seller of the lethal injection drugs a secret.

“It puts into question how civilized we are, that we would actually kill people as a state — that means the leadership but the people too, we’re agreeing to kill people,” Sister Joan Pytlik, DC, minister for religious at the Diocese of Little Rock. “Most of them are either mentally ill, had a terrible childhood, they did (their crime) while they were under the influence of drugs and maybe don’t even know they did it. Where is our mercy? Where is our compassion? Yes to the victims, but also to these broken people.”

Arkansas Attorney General Leslie Rutledge said she will request new dates for the inmates to be executed, saying in a statement on the attorney general website, arkansasag.gov, “I know that victims’ families want to see justice carried out.”

Attorney Jeff Rosenzweig, who represents the inmates, told the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette that his office is working on a “timely rehearing petition.”

Sister Joan, a member of the Arkansas Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty, said justice means a life sentence.  

“The nine who have brought the suit would all say that a life sentence can be more difficult than a death sentence. You figure you have your whole life to live locked up,” Sister Joan said. “… The word justice means ‘right relationship.’ To have some compassion and mercy for broken people is a right relationship. You never find closure through execution.”

Decision details

Court decisions take 18 days to be certified, making it official July 11. Rutledge did not request to expedite formalizing the ruling although one of the state’s lethal  injection drugs expired on June 30 and the seller will not provide more drugs. However, it is unclear if the state has another drug source.

In a June 23 statement, the Arkansas Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty said it is “deeply troubled by the court’s departure from established precedent.” Currently, 34 men are on death row in Arkansas and the state has not executed anyone since 2005.

“Today’s ruling announces that the state is no longer bound to agreements that it chooses not to abide by and that our state’s Freedom of Information Act can be easily circumvented,” ACADP stated. “Under current law, prisoners are strapped with the burden of proving that there is a known and available alternative to the state’s current execution protocol, and while this law requires those condemned to death row to basically plan their own executions, the prisoner’s identification of five alternatives to the state’s current of execution was still not sufficient for the court.”

Rosenzweig filed a lawsuit last year when Act 1096 became law, allowing the sources of the three-drug lethal cocktail to remain anonymous. Advocates for the law have said companies could face criticism if it were revealed that their drugs assisted in executions.

The inmates argued that because state law allowed information about the source of the three drugs — midazolam, vecuronium bromide and potassium chloride — to remain a secret, they could not determine whether or not they could be subjected to cruel and unusual punishment. Austin Sarat, a professor of jurisprudence and political science at Amherst College in Massachusetts, stated in his 2014 book, “Gruesome Spectacles: Botched Executions and America’s Death Penalty,” that from 1890 to 2010, 8,776 people were executed and something went wrong in 276 (or 3.15 percent) of executions. Lethal injections were more commonly botched.

On Dec. 3, 2015, Pulaski County Circuit Judge Wendell Griffen called the law unconstitutional, which further stayed the executions.

The Arkansas Supreme Court voted 4-3 in favor of the law, saying in its ruling that “disclosing the information is actually detrimental to the process.”

In June 2015, drugs valued at $24,226.40 were purchased for eight of the executions.

Pro-life stance

Both Bishop Anthony B. Taylor and Pope Francis, through Archbishop Carlo Maria Vigano, apostolic nuncio to the United States, appealed to the state legislature and Gov. Asa Hutchinson last year to stop the executions.

“God’s gift of life is sacred, regardless of a person’s usefulness to society, which means that there is no justification whatsoever to take the lives of people who are locked away and pose no further threat to society,” Bishop Taylor said Sept. 4.

Hutchinson originally set the executions for October 2015. Hutchinson’s spokesman J.R. Davis said in a statement to Arkansas Catholic: “Gov. Hutchinson believes Judge Griffen overstepped his authority and is pleased the Arkansas Supreme Court reversed his ruling upholding the law protecting the confidentiality of the supplier. The governor is now reviewing the decision and is conferring with the attorney general about what are the appropriate next steps to take.”

ACADP has argued the death penalty is costly and there is “proven racial disparity” in the state’s death penalty.

In 2015, the ACADP drafted Senate Bill 298 that proposed the abolition of the death penalty. Though it was the first time such a bill passed in committee, it was not put before the state Senate. In 2017, the group plans on drafting another bill that replaces the death penalty with a life sentence. According to the Death Penalty Information Center, it costs taxpayers $90,000 more per year to house a death row inmate than an inmate in a regular prison.

How you can help

“As Catholics we need to pray that the governor, attorney general and legislature will find mercy in their hearts, and respond to Pope Francis’ call for an end to the death penalty worldwide,” Sister Joan said. “To that end, we can send the postcards supplied by Catholic Charities to give our message to the governor.”

Catholic Charities of Arkansas printed postcards for ACADP that are available at Christ the King Church and St. John Center in Little Rock and some Central Arkansas parishes, said Karen DiPippa, director of the CCA Westside Free Medical Clinic.

CCA will also mail interested groups postcard packets to distribute. Those interested can call CCA executive director Patrick Gallaher at (501) 664-0340, ext. 352.

Aprille Hanson Spivey

Aprille Hanson Spivey has contributed to Arkansas Catholic as a freelancer and associate editor since 2010. She leads the Beacon of Hope grief ministry at St. Joseph Church in Conway.

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