A “DOUBLE-HEADER” IN ARKANSAS

Sorry, Mr. Hutchinson. The deadline was April 30. Time’s up.

That was the expiry date of Arkansas’ supply of the controversial sedative, midazolam. The state of Arkansas uses midazolam to numb death row inmates before their execution so that they suffer less pain when the actual “death drugs’ take effect and perform their fatal function. In fact, midazolam has been shown to work as promised only some of the time.

The expiry date lit a fire under Governor Asa Hutchinson. In order to execute as many inmates on Arkansas’ death row as possible before the deadline, he signed death warrants for eight of them, nearly 25% of the entire death row population. That would have been a third as many people as were put to death in all fifty states in 2016.

The first execution was scheduled for April 22, just eight days before the deadline. Because the courts intervened (Mr. Hutchinson, no doubt, would say interfered) and caused a delay, it was no longer possible to have one execution per day before April 30. So, the state performed the execution of two inmates on the same day, a dubious kind of “double-header” if there ever was one. That’s not surprising, I suppose. Arkansas carried out triple executions in 1994 and 1997 – a model of efficiency in the annals of state-sanctioned murder.

I have hesitated to post anything about this matter since it’s difficult for me to contain my anger. I am nothing less than passionate about abolition of the death penalty, so passionate that some have said I have lost all sense of proportion and perspective on the subject. I display very little patience and sympathy in conversations with people who advocate for the death penalty. No credible scientific evidence has emerged to show that the death penalty is a deterrent. The application of the death penalty is uneven, with minority inmates, the poor, and those of borderline intelligence and mental health being the most likely to be executed. If it brings “closure” for the survivors of the murder victims, it creates new survivors of a person put to death violently.

My opposition to the death penalty has been a lifelong passion. It was sharpened, however, since I became pastor to five inmates on Florida’s death row in Raiford, just thirty miles from the congregation I was serving in Gainesville. Since 1989 when I was invited to provide spiritual care to these five, the sentence of three of them has been changed to life in prison without the possibility of parole. One remains on the row, where he has been warehoused since 1987.

That leaves one, Ray. In 1990, I accompanied Ray to his execution in “Ole Sparky”, as Florida’s electric chair was ghoulishly referred to. That night and the following morning, I was sickened by the bizarre notion of the scheduled death of an individual. I was traumatized for months afterward. Even now, 27 years after the execution, my pulse beats faster and the adrenaline rushes. The barbarity of the practice is still overwhelming to me.

In the Arkansas case, there are features that make the occasion even more brutal and base. The fourth victim, Kenneth Williams, executed on April 27, had been determined by health care professionals to be “intellectually disabled”. He was executed, anyway. He may not even have been cognizant of why he was being killed. Can you call something “punishment” if the one being punished is not aware of why?

Even people traditionally in favor of the death penalty would agree, I daresay, that eight executions in a space of eight days is the epitome of irresponsibility and the trivialization of death. Why the rush when all eight had been sitting in 6’ x 9’ cells 23 hours a day for years, in a few cases, decades? Public defenders argued that the rushed schedule did not allow them time for essential parts of the legally-sanctioned defense process, such as applying for clemency, which cannot be done until the death warrant has been signed. Several of the public defenders were working on the case of more than one inmate, an impossible task under even the best circumstances, much less under the duress of eight or fewer days.

The state of Arkansas paid little heed to the psychological and spiritual health of the numerous individuals assigned to perform an execution. A state investigation, resisted, by the way, by Governor Hutchinson,   found that the extremely tight schedule caused “untold stress” on the staff, and recommended that future executions be spaced apart. The report pointed to the higher risk of mistakes in such hurried executions. More than two dozen former corrections officials from across the country signed an open letter to draw attention to the impact on the executioner, a forgotten person in the process, also a victim of the barbarity.

It’s interesting that for the four executions that were not blocked by the courts, at least one was put in jeopardy when the Rotary Club was unable to find a sufficient number of volunteers to witness the act, which are required by law. In Florida, I recall that folks were lining up to volunteer whenever an execution was scheduled. Perhaps times have changed, and people have grown more repulsed by the practice. Probably wishful thinking on my part, I admit.

A personal heroine of mine, Sister Helen Prejean of Louisiana (See Dead Man Walking) has called upon those who, like me and her, oppose the death penalty, to continue the effort to work towards abolishing it. She hopes that the obscenity of eight, or even four, executions in eight days, will wake people up to the horror that is committed by the state in the name of all its citizens.

A dark subject this week, to be sure. But nonetheless, until the next post, live each day to the fullest. If you favor the death penalty, I promise to patient and receptive to your comment if you wish to leave one.

JAS

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