Tuesday, April 18, 2017

EDITORIAL >> Killers look for reprieve

“April is the cruelest month,” T. S. Eliot wrote, perhaps anticipating the great Arkansas morality play in which the state and its political leaders seek to execute eight prisoners before the flowering month ends and one of the government’s ill-gotten killing drugs reaches its expiration date.

What Eliot meant was that the month of refreshing rain and rebirth also brings painful memories of death and failure and a certain despondence, at least in the poet’s case. The great execution extravaganza, which has brought unwanted world attention to the state like few other events—the 1957 school integration crisis and the 1967 excavation of graves at Cummins Prison come to mind—seems to fit Eliot’s gloomy view of the month.

Arkansas has not executed anyone in 15 years, and Gov. Hutchinson scheduled eight executions—two at a time over 11 days—because one of the drugs in its killing cocktail is supposed to expire at month’s end, its effectiveness (and legality) in doubt afterward. States have been executing convicted murderers from time to time, but scheduling eight in a clump made Arkansas look especially callous, bloodthirsty in the eyes of people the world over who consider the death penalty unChristian, immoral or at least uncivilized. Most executions now occur in a handful of countries—China, North Korea, Muslim countries like Saudi Arabia, Iran and Pakistan that follow Sharia law, and the United States.

The executions were to begin Monday night but the courts halted them. All the others are in limbo as a baffling assortment of legal and medical questions, some peculiar to one or two of the prisoners and others applying to all of them, make their hasty way through state or federal courts. Governor Hutchinson and Attorney General Leslie Rutledge, who have pursued the executions with unusual zeal, may yet get to dispatch three or four of the prisoners on their scheduled dates with the gurney.

If the manufacturer of one of the drugs who says the state deceived the company when it obtained the drug under false pretenses wins its case, all the executions could be delayed indefinitely. But that seems unlikely. The 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, made up almost exclusively of conservative Republican judges, and the elected Arkansas Supreme Court, also controlled by judges prone to uphold judicial and executive death orders, seem apt to rule finally for death.

Jacksonville residents remember two of the killings: Marcel Williams, who kidnapped and strangled Stacey Errickson in 1994, and Ledell Lee, who was convicted in the 1993 murder of Debra Reese, who was struck 36 times with a tire iron that her husband had given her for protection. Lee has always maintained his innocence and his attorneys have raised a fresh question about whether current science can determine whether blood and hair that were evidence of the crime were his and the victim’s or someone else’s. Most of the issues in the other cases revolve around the prisoners’ mental conditions or capacities either now or at the time of their crimes, or the manner in which their deaths are to be carried out.

As we have said, there is a deep ambivalence in the United States about state-sponsored killings, even for the most heinous crimes, and we are nearing the end of its use. A significant majority of Arkansans still favor the death penalty, which accounts for the stout defense of the eight executions by the governor, the attorney general, the state’s entire congressional delegation and an outpouring of tweets and Facebook posts by legislators.

The Arkansas extravaganza may speed the end, or it may give fresh life to what the late Governor Winthrop Rockefeller in 1967 called “a fallible and failing theory of punitive justice.” Rockefeller commuted the death sentences of all 15 men on Death Row and hoped he would be an example for others. Only one governor ever followed him, the Republican chief executive of Illinois, which then ended executions altogether in that state.

While there were recriminations over the state, federal, trial and appellate courts’ actions on the eight cases the past week, we all must understand what it is all about. Executions, whether they were extralegal lynchings or the products of trial and the actual execution of the laws, forced us all, but, in the end now, the judicial system, to face the dilemma of both our religious beliefs and the actual words of our Constitution: for believers whether to obey the eye-for-an-eye justice of Mosaic law or the commandments of the New Testament and for the courts the question of how to interpret the Bill of Rights, which forbade cruel and unusual punishment. What really could be more cruel than taking one’s life?

The courts answered that question by not answering it. They have for more than 40 years wrestled instead with the questions of how much pain and suffering in the course of dying is to be allowed before it is considered “cruel” and how much mental and psychological incapacity or damage in a criminal should be considered the limit before he is considered unfit or ineligible to die in the public’s name?

We don’t think the courts will answer those questions with any finality this week or by the summer, when the U.S. Supreme Court could narrow the latitude in a way that could save one of the inmates. But probably not. What we would wish for all those who rage on either side of these questions, from the politicians and judges to the rest of us, is a little solemnity and for those so inclined perhaps some prayer or reflection. — Ernie Dumas