After 10 Years, Return of Death Penalty in Arkansas an Ideological Statement

The governor of Arkansas aims to end the state’s decade-long hiatus on executions in October.

Gov. Asa Hutchinson has set dates for the executions of eight convicted murderers, according to Reuters. The first two men are sentenced two die in October. But this decision is already being challenged, according to Robert Dunham, executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center.

“The lawyers for the prisoners who are facing death warrants will be filing motions for an injunction to bar all of the scheduled executions,” Dunham said. “They are arguing that Arkansas’ lethal injection statute has constitutional defects, including, in particular, its lethal injection procedures.”

Dunham added that “a suit challenging the Arkansas lethal injection statute and protocol was pending well before the death warrants were signed, and the prisoners’ lawyers expect that an injunction will be granted.”

Coming at a time when capital punishment is under national and international scrutiny, Hutchinson’s move may be about taking a stand, said Rodney Engen, associate professor of sociology and criminal justice at the University of Arkansas.

“As a nation, we are deeply ambivalent about the death penalty,” Engen said. “Seven states have repealed it since 2007, for a total of 19 that have abolished. However, this region, and the South generally, remains staunchly conservative. Moreover, with the extremely polarized political environment we have currently, certain policy positions have taken on even greater symbolic importance than they might have in the past — support for gun rights, opposition to abortion rights and marriage equality are a few examples. I think the death penalty is one of those issues.”

With the extremely polarized political environment we have currently, certain policy positions have taken on even greater symbolic importance.
Rodney Engen, associate professor of sociology and criminal justice
Data from Pew Research Center released in April shows that support for the death penalty in the United States is as low as it has been in 40 years — though a majority of Americans still support it for those convicted of murder.

Taking a stand on this issue is a way for Republicans to buck national and international trends, and show a commitment to conservative ideology, Engen said.

The scheduling is also a matter of practicality. Arkansas obtained the requisite drugs for lethal injection in August, according to Reuters.

Though the state pales in execution numbers when compared with nearby Texas, the debate isn’t about quantity, said Jacob Held, associate professor of philosophy at the University of Central Arkansas.

“Being next to Texas makes anyone look good, especially in the case of the death penalty,” Held said. “Texas performs the majority of executions in the country, and outpaces any other state significantly. But the issue with capital punishment isn’t about how many you do, it’s about whether or not you should do any. The debate hinges on the question of whether the government should exercise its power to deprive a citizen of life.”

But though Texas takes the lead, Arkansas is part of a region with a uniquely high execution rate, said James Clark, senior death penalty campaigner at Amnesty USA.

“The world has largely abandoned the death penalty, but the United States stands out as a global leader in executions alongside Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Iran, and China,” Clark said. “That ranking is driven largely by a few states like Texas, Missouri, and Oklahoma, while most jurisdictions in the U.S. have either abolished or abandoned the death penalty. In fact, just 2 percent of the counties in the U.S. are responsible for a majority of death sentences. Arkansas’ disuse of the death penalty over the last decade has been in step with the national and global trend.”

The current executions also ignore a long-term problem, Clark said — that capital punishment will always be costly and contested, no matter what form it comes in.

“Difficulty acquiring drugs is just one aspect of a broken system,” he said. “In every state with the death penalty, the system is costly, slow, and broken beyond repair, which is exactly why most states have either abolished it or abandoned its use. The only long-term solution is to abolish the death penalty once and for all.”

Photo Source: Reuters