June 18, 1990.
That was the date Arkansas restarted state executions after a 26-year hiatus. John Swindler was executed using the electric chair. The next inmate executed was mass murderer Ronald Gene Simmons, who was the first to be executed by lethal injection.
The state attorney general tasked with this change to the death penalty and the one responsible for coming up with a legal-proof process was then Arkansas Attorney General Steve Clark.
“It was never something I thought would be my duty as Attorney General, in the job description, to help legally organize an execution and take the death of another by any means,” Clark recalls.
Not only was Clark in office when state executions were restarted, but he led the legislative change to end use of the electric chair and to begin the current process of lethal injection. It was a daunting legislative argument, but Clark said he knew the change had to be made because of federal legal pressure regarding the death penalty.
“I’ve always been a death penalty advocate. I’ve always said that there are some actions one could take for which you forfeit your right to live. It’s easier to say that than it is to have to fulfill that execution,” said Clark, who explained the challenge in the late 1980’s to get lawmakers to alter state law toward what was then concerned a more humane execution method.
When R. Gene Simmons of Pope County forfeited his death row appeals, he became the first Arkansas inmate to die by lethal injection, and Clark said he never could have imagined the national and international attention it would draw. With the first lethal injection execution of Simmons, Clark said he was also unprepared for the imagery of Simmons being confined to the gurney for the administration of the drug cocktail that would take his life.
“I walk in there about oh, 9:45 [p.m] and we know it’s set. We know he’s being brought into the chamber to be put on the gurney, and it really hasn’t clicked until they open that curtain and there he is. Just like this. Hands extended. Legs straight. Head up. No leather straps necessarily,” said Clark, acknowledging the crucifixion imagery associated with the death chamber.
“To deny it would have been impossible,” he said.
Now the head of the Fayetteville Chamber of Commerce, Clark sat down for an introspective discussion on the subject, one he’s only shared less than a handful of times since his tenure. Watch his interview below.