The com­ing death of the death penalty

The Washington Times Daily - - COMMENTARY - Wes­ley Pruden is editor in chief emer­i­tus of The Times. BY WES­LEY PRUDEN

The ever-cranky courts of law keep get­ting in the way of this Easter sea­son’s record-set­ting Fes­ti­val of Death in Ar­kan­sas. Gov. Asa Hutchin­son set up a spec­tac­u­lar sched­ule of eight ex­e­cu­tions in six days and the courts, both fed­eral and state, have nib­bled at it and now it’s still mean, sor­did and not for the squea­mish, but not as spec­tac­u­lar as it was meant to be.

The Ar­kan­sas Supreme Court stayed the ex­e­cu­tion of the first two men sen­tenced to die late Mon­day, and the state’s at­tor­ney gen­eral vowed to ap­peal, but it’s not clear where and how the two men would get back in the ro­ta­tion. The sym­me­try of the fes­ti­val, though hardly a work of art, could be spoiled.


Ar­kan­sas ex­e­cu­tions have brought un­wanted at­ten­tion to the state, and to the gover­nor, who has been busy with sym­bol­ism over the past month. He first stripped Robert E. Lee of the honor of a state hol­i­day, per­haps in salute to yan­kee en­trepreneurs and over­seas in­vestors who might not want to spend money in a place that still reveres its heroes of the War of North­ern Ag­gres­sion. Now Ar­kan­sas is at last el­i­gi­ble to pur­sue with­out hin­drance a new shirt or shoe fac­tory. His­tory, as Henry Ford said, is bunk, any­way.

Gov. Hutchin­son said he had to sched­ule his re­mark­able round-robin be­cause the state was about to run out of the chem­i­cals — “phar­ma­ceu­ti­cal drugs,” for the squea­mish — needed to put the crim­i­nals to a ter­mi­nal sleep and, be­sides, some of the chem­i­cals on hand were close to their sell-by date. The three-drug cock­tail doesn’t al­ways work as promised, any­way. Re­cent botched ex­e­cu­tions in Ohio and Ok­la­homa sub­jected pris­on­ers to long and ag­o­niz­ing deaths, with con­sid­er­able gasp­ing, wheez­ing and thrash­ing about. One required an hour to die.

Ar­kan­sas has held memorable ex­e­cu­tions in the past. One of the most in­fa­mous was that of the fee­ble-minded Ricky Ray Rec­tor. After a sump­tu­ous last sup­per, pro­vided by cus­tom, Rec­tor so en­joyed the pecan pie that he in­sisted on leav­ing a piece of it in his cell to eat after his ex­e­cu­tion. Gov. Bill Clin­ton, in def­er­ence to pub­lic opin­ion, in­ter­rupted his first cam­paign for pres­i­dent to hurry home to Ar­kan­sas to pre­side over the ex­e­cu­tion.

But cap­i­tal pun­ish­ment is not as pop­u­lar as it once was, when crowds gath­ered out­side prison gates for tail­gate par­ties with live mu­sic, cold beer and chants of “fry him.” The elec­tric chair has given way to the nee­dle, and ab­sent the siz­zle the drama is not nearly as ex­cit­ing. Twenty-five years ago the Pew Poll of pub­lic opin­ion showed that 71 per­cent of Democrats ap­proved of the state tak­ing the lives of the guilty, and that num­ber has fallen to the low 40s.

Larger num­bers of

Repub­li­cans have al­ways sup­ported cap­i­tal pun­ish­ment, a mark of its de­vo­tion to law and or­der, but the same Pew polling finds that sup­port among

Repub­li­cans has dropped from 87 per­cent to 77 per­cent. A small but ex­pand­ing group of prom­i­nent con­ser­va­tives ar­gue that au­then­tic con­ser­vatism leads away from cap­i­tal pun­ish­ment. Some of the names, rang­ing from Jeb Bush to Newt Gin­grich to Rick Perry, are sur­pris­ing. The death penalty is as pop­u­lar as ever with many con­ser­va­tives, nat­u­rally, but meth­ods of deal­ing death are not. In­ef­fi­ciency in­evitably costs money, and waste­ful gov­ern­ment in­ef­fi­ciency is not a con­ser­va­tive virtue.

Ne­braska, for ex­am­ple, has spent $100 mil­lion on death-penalty cases since the U.S. Supreme Court af­firmed the con­sti­tu­tion­al­ity of the death penalty in 1976, and has ex­e­cuted only three men. This hardly ar­gues that money spent ex­e­cut­ing crim­i­nals is cost-ef­fi­cient. Cu­ri­ously, it’s of­ten Repub­li­can gover­nors who have re­strained the ex­e­cu­tioner. The late Winthrop Rock­e­feller, the gover­nor of Ar­kan­sas, com­muted the sen­tences of 15 pris­on­ers when he left of­fice.

But no other gover­nor has acted with the bold­ness of Ge­orge Ryan in Illi­nois, who in one swoop spared 163 lives in 2003, even as he was fight­ing ac­cu­sa­tions of the per­sonal mis­deeds that seem to be in the DNA of Illi­nois gover­nors.

“The facts that I have seen in re­view­ing each and ev­ery one of these cases raised ques­tions not only about the in­no­cence of peo­ple on death row,” he said, “but about the fair­ness of the death penalty sys­tem as a whole. Our cap­i­tal sys­tem is haunted by the de­mon of er­ror: er­ror in de­ter­min­ing guilt and de­ter­min­ing who among the guilty de­serves to die.”

The Ar­kan­sas fes­ti­val of death is un­usual only that it is death by whole­sale. In­no­cent men have died on the gal­lows, in the elec­tric chair and by rid­ing the poi­son nee­dles in many places. The guilt is shared by all of us.


Gov. Asa Hutchin­son

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