by Rob Moritz
Executions in Arkansas are on hold for a variety of reasons, but the question of capital punishment is still being debated and legislation concerning the issue could be considered soon by the state Legislature and Congress.
“There should be a lot of discussion,” said Rep. Vivian Flowers, D-Pine Bluff, who hopes to have an interim study before a legislative committee this summer that would exempt from the state’s death penalty law people who were mentally ill at the time of the crime.
In April 2017, the state executed four death row inmates in one week. The executions of four other men were stayed. Three of the men are now nearing the end of their legal appeals.
On March 31, the state’s supply of vecuronium bromide, one of the three drugs used in the execution, expired. Gov. Asa Hutchinson ordered the director of the Department of Correction to acquire more.
Solomon Graves, spokesman for the department, said in early May that correction officials had not yet find a new supply of the drug.
“The department has no comment on when it will obtain an additional of vecuronium bromide,” he said.
Of the other two drugs used in executions, Graves said the supply of potassium chloride expires at the end of Aug. 31. The supply of midazolam expires Jan. 31.
Furonda Brasfield, executive director of the Arkansas Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty, said her organization continues to work on repealing the state’s law, and she is monitoring several court cases involving death row inmates.
Bruce Ward and Don Davis, two of the four who had their executions stayed in April 2017, have filed a petition asking the United State Supreme Court to consider whether they should have had access to mental health professionals during their original trials.
Ward and death row inmate Jack Greene, who was not scheduled for execution in April 2017, are waiting for the state Supreme Court to set oral arguments in their challenge to whether Prison Director Wendy Kelley can properly serve as “arbiter of sanity” because she is not a mental health professional and the governor actually sets the execution dates.
Stacey Johnson, who also had his execution stayed in April 2017, is currently waiting for a Sevier County circuit judge to rule on his request to have DNA tested in his case.
But it’s not just in the courts where the death penalty is being watched.
Flowers, who filed a bill in 2017 to abolish the death penalty in Arkansas but opted not to run it through committee, has a proposal in interim study that would prohibit the state from sentencing to death anyone who was mentally ill at the time of their crime.
While there are some legal protections designed to prevent those deemed mentally from being executed, Flowers said she isn’t sure those protections are applied unilaterally.
“I don’t think it is clear and I don’t think it’s automatic,” she said, adding she plans to have experts testify on the issue before the House judiciary committee this summer.
J.R. Davis, spokesman for the governor, said he needed more information on Flowers’ proposal before he could comment because there are already laws on the books designed to prevent mentally ill inmates from being executed.
Davis did say the death penalty is “part of Arkansas law and the governor will carry that out after alerted by the attorney general’s office as to when he can set those dates.”
On the federal level, U.S. Sen. Tom Cotton, R-Ark., has said he is open to the idea of executing drug dealers in an effort to combat the opioid crisis. Arkansas Attorney Gen. Leslie Rutledge has appeared at events with Cotton supporting the idea.
Cotton has already filed a bill that would increase the federal minimum sentences for possession of fentanyl, a cheap and inexpensive synthetic opioid that has been linked to a dramatic increase in overdoses and deaths across the country.