By Senator Larry Teague
LITTLE ROCK – The state attorney general challenged state elected officials and policy makers to overhaul Arkansas death penalty procedures.
In a speech before the Arkansas Sheriffs Association, Attorney General Dustin McDaniel called the current system of capital punishment in Arkansas “completely broken.”
Arkansas uses lethal injection to execute people convicted of capital crimes. However, the state has not carried out the death penalty since 2005. That is partly because individual inmates on death row spend an average of 15 years appealing their sentences. It’s also due to a proliferation of civil lawsuits challenging the general procedures of lethal injection on constitutional, legal and technical grounds.
Another problem is that last month the international corporation that manufactures the barbiturates used for lethal injection announced that it would no longer supply the drugs to states that intend to use them for lethal injection.
Of all the state’s elected officials, the state attorney general has unique standing to comment on death penalty procedures. His office represents the state and the Correction Department in lawsuits that challenge death penalty procedures. Also, lawyers in the Attorney General’s Criminal Department represent the prosecution and work to uphold prison sentences imposed by juries when inmates appeal their convictions.
The attorney general’s remarks on the death penalty took on added significance because he made them in a speech to Arkansas sheriffs.
He said that in his view, Arkansas policy makers had two alternatives – either abolish the death penalty or change from lethal injection to another method of execution.
He said because of the lengthy legal battles that ensue when a person is convicted of capital punishment, lethal injection is a “legal fallacy.” It deceives juries when they sentence someone to death because the state does not have a viable system for executing them, he said. Inmates sentenced to die have more legal options on which to appeal than other inmates, he said.
The legislature approved Act 139 earlier this year to update the state’s protocol for lethal injection, but its enactment prompted immediate legal challenges. Act 139 calls for lethal injection to be a two-step process: first the inmate is injected with benzodiazepine, which decreases anxiety. Then the inmate is to be injected with a lethal amount of barbiturate.
Act 139 cleared up constitutional issues about the separation of powers that had been raised by inmates in previous legal challenges. In their lawsuits they argued that the legislative branch had ceded too much authority to the executive branch to determine how the drugs would be administered. After passage of Act 139, the inmates argued that their executions should be carried out under laws in effect at the time they were convicted, rather than under the procedures set out in Act 139.
In 1913 the legislature authorized state prison officials to carry out executions, and to do so with an electric chair. Previously, most executions were by hanging and were done by county officials. The last execution by hanging in Arkansas was in Logan County in 1914. The first execution by state officials, using an electric chair, was in 1913.
The legislature approved lethal injection as the method of execution in 1983, but anyone convicted before 1983 was able to choose electrocution or lethal injection. The last time Arkansas executed someone by electric chair was in 1990.