Arkansas Double Execution: Public Safety or Politics?

Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson with executed prisoners Jack H. Jones, Jr. and Marcell W. Williams
From left to right: Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson, Jack H. Jones, Jr., and Marcell W. Williams.

Arkansas has made good on its promise to execute Jack H. Jones, Jr., 52, and Marcel W. Williams, 46, on April 24. Now, opponents of the death penalty are protesting once again that Arkansas’ sudden surfeit of capital punishments is far more about politics than public safety.

After lethal infections were administered, Jones was pronounced dead at 7:20 p.m. and Williams at 10:33 p.m. CDT at the Arkansas Department of Corrections’ Cummins Unit in Lincoln County. The inmates’ attorneys argued to no avail in their last minute court appeals that both men’s ill health made their executions cruel and inhumane.

One of Jones’ legs was amputated while he was on death row due to diabetes. Williams was also stricken ill with diabetes. At 400-plus pounds, Williams was morbidly obese, so his attorneys were concerned that his girth would make it difficult for executioners to find a vein to administer the lethal drug cocktails.

Their attorneys’ fears may have been realized. Of Jones’ reportedly “botched” execution, Democracy Now reported: “Infirmary workers had spent more than 45 minutes unsuccessfully trying to put a central line into his neck. According to a court filing, during Jones’s execution, he was ‘moving his lips and gulping for air,’ which suggests he continued to be conscious during the lethal injection.”

Williams’ attorneys argued in their last-minute appeal that he could face a similarly botched execution and painful death, and a district court judge at first agreed and issued a temporary stay of Williams’s execution. But, late on Monday night, the judge allowed the execution to proceed.

“In practice, the factor that overwhelmingly drives the death penalty isn’t the severity of the crime or the strength of the evidence. It’s politics—the politics of the county in which the murder trial takes place, the politics of the prosecutor and the politics of the state,” argued Radley Balko in the Washington Post last Thursday after Ledell Lee became the first person executed in Arkansas since 2005.

A week ago, Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson, a Republican, vowed to execute eight inmates in 11 days before the state’s supply of midazolam, a medication used for anesthesia, runs out, reported ABC News. No other state has tried to execute so many inmates in such a short time since the United States Supreme Court reaffirmed the use of the death penalty in Gregg v. Georgia in 1976. Hutchinson’s efforts were temporarily blocked by an Arkansas judge. But, last week the United States Supreme Court ruled that Arksansas’ executions could continue.

In 1972, the Supreme Court imposed a moratorium on the death penalty in its 1972 decision in Furman v. Georgia. The debate revolved around whether capital punishment violated the constitution’s Eighth Amendment protections against “cruel and unusual punishment.”

In 1976, a majority of the court ruled that, while capital punishment was not considered to be cruel and unusual, care must be taken to minimize pain and suffering in executions. While William J. Brennan, Jr. also opposed the death penalty, only Thurgood Marshall, the Supreme Court’s first African-American justice, stated unequivocally in his dissent to the 1976 ruling: “The death penalty, unnecessary to promote the goal of deterrence or to further any legitimate notion of retribution, is an excessive penalty forbidden by the Eighth and Fourteenth Amendments.”

In the ensuing years, states that used lethal injection rather than the electric chair or the gas chamber, developing complicated protocols to anesthetize inmates prior to the final administering of deadly drug cocktails. But in 2014, witnesses reported that Clayton Darrell Lockett writhed and bucked horrifically while having a heart attack on the gurney after being given untested drugs not previously used for executions in the United States.

That botched execution in Oklahoma renewed anti-death penalty advocates’ alarms about the drug cocktails used to execute inmates. Some states faced depleted supplies of anesthetizing medication—the very same drugs that Arkansas Gov. Hutchinson claims are running out in Arkansas.

Only 2 percent of counties in the United States house prisoners on death row. These very same jurisdictions have a disproportionately high rate of prosecutorial misconduct and police brutality, according to Balko. For him and other opponents of the death penalty, it’s not the nature of the drugs used to kill inmates that poses the chief problem. Rather, it’s the allegedly unfair politicization of execution whereby some prosecutors and politicians use capital punishment to increase their bona fides as anti-crime crusaders.

To be sure, Jones and Williams committed heinous crimes. Jones was convicted and sentenced to death in 1995 for raping and murdering Mary Phillips, a 34-year-old bookkeeper in Bald Knob, Arkansas, and beating her 11-year-old daughter, Lacey, almost to death. Jones knocked Lacey unconscious and left the girl for dead. But, just as police photographers were taking pictures of the crime scene, Lacey revived herself, reported CNN.

“In a letter earlier this month, Jones said he was ready to be killed by the state. The letter, which his attorney read aloud at his clemency hearing, went on to say: ‘I shall not ask to be forgiven, for I haven’t the right,’” reported ABC News.

Williams was convicted and sentenced to death in 1994 for kidnapping, raping, and murdering Stacy Errickson, a 22-year-old mother of two that Williams abducted just outside of Jacksonville. The victims’ families feel that both inmates long tenure on death row denied them swift closure. Just as Jones admitted to the crime and expressed remorse, Williams also accepted full responsibility for his crimes in front of the Arkansas Parole Board last month.

“I wish I could take it back, but I can’t,” Williams told the board, according to ABC News. But, neither men’s remorse prompted their victims’ families to offer forgiveness. Nor did the families report a sense of finality and closure. On the contrary, Philips family reported being traumatized by the appeals process as Jones’ death penalty case dragged through the system for 22 years.

Laura Santhanam noted in PBS Newshour that Arkansas’ recent executions politicize the death penalty in ways that ignore the controversy surrounding whether capital punishments give the families of victims closure. Santhanam contends that families still struggle with grief after inmates are executed and recurrent appeals in death penalty cases force families to relive aspects of the crimes in ways that re-traumatize them.

Furthermore, regardless of how grisly the crime or how deep the suffering of victims and their families, criminologists have long claimed that the death penalty is an expensive and weak deterrent for crime. 88 percent of the top criminologists do not believe the death penalty acts as a deterrent, according to the Journal of Criminal Law and Criminology. Moreover, it costs upwards of $90,000 each year to house a prisoner on death row. Cases without the death penalty cost, on average, $740,000, while cases where the death penalty is sought cost $1.26 million because of extended appeals.

Few of arguments against the death penalty are likely to dissuade voters from re-electing Gov. Hutchinson. “Arkansas’ lull in executions wasn’t a major issue when Hutchinson ran for governor three years ago,” reported ABC News, “But as he prepares to run for re-election, there likely will be little political fallout from Hutchinson’s aggressive push for executions.” Unless a stay is granted by the courts, the glut of executions in Arkansas will continue apace with Kenneth Williams, 38, who is scheduled to be executed on April 27.

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