Lawmaker sees no rush in executions
Waits for justice for daughter
The Arkansas plan to execute multiple murderers over 11 days before a lethal injection drug expires has been condemned as a reckless rush to judgment, but that’s not how Rebecca Petty sees it.
The Republican state legislator has been waiting 17 years for Arkansas to put to death the man who murdered her 12-year-old daughter. Even though he has been on death row since 2000, he isn’t one of the seven men scheduled to die by lethal injection from April 17-27.
“There are all these victims’ families out there who have been — I don’t want to say ‘waiting,’ but who have had this hanging over their heads for the last two decades,” said Ms. Petty. “That’s how I look at it.”
Her daughter Andria Nichole Brewer was raped and strangled by an uncle by marriage in May 1999, her body found after a threeday search in the woods near her father’s home in rural Arkansas.
The seven men now awaiting execution committed their
murders from 1989 to 1999. That means some victims’ relatives have been waiting for justice for 28 years.
“I don’t see it as rushed when a jury sentenced them to death two decades ago,” Ms. Petty said. “To say it’s rushed — from a victim’s point of view, it seems like ‘it’s time.’”
Still, hers is something of a voice in the wilderness. The compressed time frame has generated national outrage from death penalty foes urging Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson to stop the “assembly line” schedule, saying it violates the prisoners’ rights and increases the possibility of mistakes.
Even at this late date, nobody would be surprised to see one or more of the inmates slip the noose. There were originally eight men scheduled to die this month, but a federal judge last week granted a temporary reprieve to Jason McGehee, saying he was entitled to a 30-day comment period after the state parole board recommended clemency earlier this month.
A federal judge is expected to hear a fourth day of testimony Thursday on a lawsuit brought by the inmates challenging the drug protocol and the execution schedule on the grounds that it violates their rights to effective counsel.
The condemned men received a boost from best-selling author and lawyer John Grisham, who called on the governor in a Monday op-ed to abandon the plan, saying “no death-happy state has ever dreamed of eight kills in such a short time.”
He’s right: No state has executed seven prisoners in 11 days since the death penalty was reinstated in 1976, according to the Death Penalty Information Center, but Arkansas officials say their hand was forced by foes of capital punishment.
Arkansas has been unable to carry out executions since 2005 as a result of lawsuits challenging the state’s lethal injection protocol. The legal battle only ended in late February, roughly two months before the drug Midazolam was set to expire.
There’s no guarantee that the state will be able to acquire quickly fresh supplies of Midazolam given that most U.S. and European manufacturers no longer provide them for executions as a result of pressure from liberal groups and capital punishment opponents.
Arkansas Attorney General Leslie Rutledge described the prisoners’ lawsuit as “another in a long series of efforts to halt their lawful executions, or at least delay them until after one of Arkansas’ lethal injection drugs expires at the end of April.”
Inevitably, much of the focus has shifted to the inmates. The Fair Punishment Project released a report March 30 saying that all eight Arkansas inmates were either abused as children, suffered mental illness or intellectual disability or received poor legal counsel.
“Taken together, these cases present a foundational challenge to the legitimacy and integrity of the death penalty in Arkansas,” said the project, whose funders include the liberal Tides Foundation. “The Governor should declare a moratorium on executions so these legal deficiencies can be given a closer look, or else the Courts must intervene to stop these executions in order to preserve public confidence in the rule of law.”
Attorneys for Don Davis and Bruce Ward, who are slated to die Monday, filed a petition Wednesday with the Arkansas Supreme Court seeking to delay the executions on the grounds that the inmates were denied access to independent mental health experts.
Ward strangled 18-year-old Rebecca Doss, a Little Rock gas station clerk, in 1989.
Davis shot 62-year-old Jane Daniel execution-style during a home-invasion robbery in 1990 in Rogers.
Ms. Petty, 47, knows from experience how quickly the tide can turn on death row.
On Jan. 6, 2004, she sat in an Arkansas prison awaiting the execution of Karl D. Roberts, her daughter’s killer. Although he had insisted for years that he would not appeal his sentence, he changed his mind at the last minute and was granted a stay.
“Gov. [Mike] Huckabee ended up signing the death warrant, and they said we could come to the prison, and they set the execution date, and at the very, very last minute, he decided that he wanted his appeal,” Ms. Petty recalled. “I mean, he was on the gurney. It was unbelievable.”
The experience would lead her to her life’s work: fighting for crime victims and their families. On that day at the prison, she was stunned at how she was treated: She wasn’t allowed to witness the execution in person, and only five of her relatives were permitted in the building.
“When we got there, they took us off to the warden’s office, where they put us on a closed-circuit feed to watch it. I was just like, ‘You’ve got to be kidding,’” Ms. Petty said. “The TV set they had was like from the 1950s, all green and grainy. I was just so stunned. When I came out of there, I was just fuming.”
On top of that, she said, “my family wasn’t treated well. They weren’t even allowed on the prison grounds. It was like 2 degrees outside, and my family was outside in this little tent, freezing, and we were inside in this cramped warden’s office, and I thought, ‘This is just crappy.’ It was so traumatizing that I didn’t speak about it for 10 years.”
When she finally told a friend about that day, he urged her to contact her state senator and push for reform. A bill on behalf of victims’ families made it through committee but died on the House floor.
The state senator encouraged her afterward to run for office, and she did, winning a seat in the Arkansas House in 2014. Her bill, called Andi’s Law, passed in 2015 without a dissenting vote despite the opposition of officials with the state Department of Corrections.
“They just didn’t want it to be a big spectacle. They came up with, ‘We need to spend $5 million to build an extra room for the victim’s families,’ and I [said], ‘No, we’re not going to waste the state’s money,’” said Ms. Petty. “‘You guys have prison guards. You house death row inmates. If you can’t handle six victim’s family members in a room with the media, then you guys have a problem.’”
Signed by the governor in 2015, the law allows up to six family members to witness the execution from an adjacent room, and up to 12 to watch from a private room hooked up to a secure satellite feed.
The national attention on the now seven executions has reminded her how victims’ families are treated, she said, often ignored or accused of being “just out for revenge.”
“I would tell people to please take a moment to look at the victims and their stories, because their lives were stolen,” Ms. Petty said. “Please take a moment to remember them. That’s how I would conclude.”
Seven prisoners have been scheduled to die in the Arkansas prison system as the state rushes to use an execution drug that expires at the end of April. The plan has drawn the ire of capital punishment foes, but victims’ families are demanding justice.