Halted ex­e­cu­tion deep­ens con­ser­va­tive ire at court

The Sentinel-Record - - VIEWPOINTS - Arkansas Per­spec­tive Andrew DeMillo has cov­ered Arkansas gov­ern­ment and pol­i­tics for The Associated Press since 2005.

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.

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