Less than a month before the state of Arkansas is to begin executing eight men over an 11-day period, legislators Tuesday rejected bills that would prevent executions of mentally ill defendants and raise the standard for sentencing executions to “beyond any doubt,” while the sponsor agreed to amend a bill outlawing all executions that had little chance of passing.
The House Judiciary Committee voted against House Bill 2170, which would end death penalties for persons with a serious mental illness and also would vacate the death penalty for those already convicted who have a serious mental illness. It failed on a voice vote.
Tom Sullivan, a professor at the UALR William H. Bowen School of Law, said existing law puts medical practitioners in the uncomfortable position of medicating inmates so they can be deemed competent to be executed.
But Benton County Prosecuting Attorney Nathan Smith said the bill is so broad that, “I don’t think anyone could ever receive the death penalty if this law were passed.” Scott Ellington, a prosecuting attorney based in Jonesboro, argued against the ability to reduce sentences to life in prison in cases that have already been tried.
After former legislator and congressional candidate Herb Rule argued against the death penalty, Rep. Rebecca Petty, R-Rogers, a member of the committee, referenced the man who kidnapped and murdered her daughter.
“What about those crime victims? What about those families? Do they not deserve grave punishment for grave crimes?” she asked.
Rep. Laurie Rushing, R-Hot Springs, whose daughter died last year, said two mothers on the committee would never see their daughters again. Convicted murderers, meanwhile, would see their loved ones again during prison visitations. The bill failed on a forceful no vote.
The state has not executed anyone since 2005 but has scheduled eight inmates to be put to death, all for capital murder, on the following dates:
• April 17, Don Davis, Bruce Ward
• April 20, Stacey Johnson, Ledelle Lee
• April 24, Marcel Williams, Jack Jones
• April 27, Jason McGehee, Kenneth Williams
Flowers agreed to amend her more expansive bill, House Bill 2103, which would end capital punishment in Arkansas, after legislators noted that it seemed to offer punishments of either life imprisonment or life without parole for capital murder, rather than just life without parole.
Flowers said she would amend the bill before bringing it back before the committee. She later acknowledged in an interview that it had little chance of passing.
“It’s a process, and people need to be made aware and need to be afforded an opportunity for discussion and to think differently about these things,” she said.
Flowers presented a list of witnesses that included Furonda Brasfield, executive director of the Arkansas Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty. She told legislators that the death penalty does not deter murders, is expensive, and is twice as likely to be applied to African-Americans than whites in capital murder cases. She also said 156 individuals have been released from death row across the country after their conviction was overturned.
The committee also said no on a voice vote to House Bill 1798 by Rep. Charles Blake, D-Little Rock, which would have raised the standard for applying the death penalty in the sentencing phase to “beyond any doubt.” Blake told the committee that the bill would not change the standard of “beyond reasonable doubt” in determining guilt but would reduce the possibility of an innocent person being executed. He told legislators his father had told him to measure twice and cut once.
“If we’re going to be cutting someone’s life short, we should be absolutely sure that that person is guilty beyond any doubt of the crime that we’re executing them for,” he said.
But State Prosecutor Coordinator Bob McMann with the Arkansas Prosecuting Attorneys Association said “beyond any doubt” is an impossible standard to reach.