Halted execution deepens conservative ire at court
LITTLE ROCK — The Arkansas Supreme Court’s decision to halt another execution last week will only further the complaints lobbed by conservatives who say the court is denying closure to victims’ families. But it’s too soon to tell what the political fallout will be and whether it’ll factor into any races next year.
Justices last week granted an emergency stay for Jack Greene, who had been sentenced to death in the 1991 killing of Sidney Burnett, while justices take up a case related to claims that the convicted murderer is severely mentally ill. It marked the fourth execution halted this year by the court, which spared three of the eight inmates Arkansas had planned to put to death before its supply of a lethal injection drug expired at the end of April.
The state’s top attorney said she wouldn’t appeal the order and vented frustration at the court over its 5-2 decision.
“With no written order or explanation provided, the Arkansas Supreme Court has once again delayed justice for the family of Sidney Burnett,” Attorney General Leslie Rutledge said in a statement. “I will continue to fight for justice for Sidney Burnett and to give the Burnett family the closure they deserve.”
The stay revived conservatives’ criticism of the court, which grew in April when justices scaled back what had been an unprecedented plan to put eight inmates to death over an 11-day period. Arkansas ultimately carried out four executions that month after three inmates were spared by the state high court and another by a federal judge.
“These guys committed heinous crimes. They have been convicted and convicted and convicted, and now we have what appears to be activism on our justices’ side to basically re-victimize the families and victims,” said Republican Sen. Bart Hester.
The criticism is striking for a court that has shifted to the right in recent elections. Outside groups and candidates spent more than $1.6 million last year on a pair of high court races that were among the most expensive and bitterly fought judicial campaigns in the state’s history. Arkansas was among a number of states where conservative groups spent millions on such efforts.
As in April, part of the furor has focused on the lack of a detailed ruling elaborating on the court’s reason for the stay. The court issued a one-page decision granting Greene’s request for a stay, the same approach taken when it halted three other executions in April. Greene’s attorneys asked for the stay so they can appeal a lower court’s decision to dismiss their challenge to an Arkansas law giving the state’s top prison official authority to determine the inmate’s mental competency.
“It’s just troubling. I want to know the reason why we’re delaying justice to these families so we can properly move forward,” Republican Sen. Trent Garner said last week.
The ruling also came days after the court threw another new potential obstacle at efforts to continue executions, ruling that a 2015 law keeping secret the source of Arkansas’ lethal injection drugs protected suppliers and sellers but not manufacturers. A New York company revealed last week as the maker of Arkansas’ newly obtained supply of midazolam, one of three drugs used in the lethal injection process, said it didn’t want its products used for executions and said it doesn’t sell drugs for that purpose.
The first big test of whether there’s any backlash over the stays will come next year, with one of the state’s seven Supreme Court seats on the ballot. Supreme Court Justice Courtney Goodson, whose seat is up next year, has not said whether she’ll seek re-election. Goodson, who voted for the stays, lost her bid for chief justice last year after conservative groups blanketed the state with ads attacking her.
Poll numbers last week also showed just how much Arkansans’ strong support of the death penalty contrasts with a national decline in recent years. Seventy-two percent of respondents in the University of Arkansas’ annual Arkansas poll supported death penalty as a punishment for murder. The poll has a margin of error of plus or minus 3.5 percentage points.
“The average Arkansas voter on this core issue is just different from the average American voter,” said Janine Parry, the director of the poll.