Pruden: The coming death of the death penalty

By Wesley Pruden |

The ever-cranky courts of law keep getting in the way of this Easter season’s record-setting Festival of Death in Arkansas.Gov.  Asa Hutchinson set up a spectacular schedule of eight executions in six days and the courts, both federal and state, have nibbled at it and now it’s still mean, sordid and not for the squeamish, but not as spectacular as it was meant to be.

The Arkansas Supreme Court stayed the execution of the first two men sentenced to die late Monday, and the state’s attorney general vowed to appeal, but it’s not clear where and how the two men would get back in the rotation. The symmetry of the festival, though hardly a work of art, could be spoiled.

The Arkansas executions have brought unwanted attention to the state, and to the governor, who has been busy with symbolism over the past month. He first stripped Robert E. Lee of the honor of a state holiday, perhaps in salute to Yankee entrepreneurs and overseas investors who might not want to spend money in a place that still reveres its heroes of the War of Northern Aggression. Now Arkansas is at last eligible to pursue without hindrance a new shirt or shoe factory. History, as Henry Ford said, is bunk, anyway.

Mr. Hutchinson said he had to schedule his remarkable round-robin because the state was about to run out of the chemicals — “pharmaceutical drugs,” for the squeamish — needed to put the criminals to a terminal sleep and, besides, some of the chemicals on hand were close to their sell-by date. The three-drug cocktail doesn’t always work as promised, anyway. Recent botched executions in Ohio and Oklahoma subjected prisoners to long and agonizing deaths, with considerable gasping, wheezing and thrashing about. One required an hour to die.

Arkansas has held memorable executions in the past. One of the most infamous was that of the feeble-minded Ricky Ray Rector. After a sumptuous last supper, provided by custom, Rector so enjoyed the pecan pie that he insisted on leaving a piece of it in his cell to eat after his execution. Gov. Bill Clinton, in deference to public opinion, interrupted his first campaign for president to hurry home to Arkansas to preside over the execution.

But capital punishment is not as popular as it once was, when crowds gathered outside prison gates for tailgate parties with live music, cold beer and chants of “fry him.” The electric chair has given way to the needle, and absent the sizzle the drama is not nearly as exciting. Twenty-five years ago the Pew Poll of public opinion showed that 71 percent of Democrats approved of the state taking the lives of the guilty, and that number has fallen to the low 40s.

Larger numbers of Republicans have always supported capital punishment, a mark of its devotion to law and order, but the same Pew polling finds that support among Republicans has dropped from 87 percent to 77 percent. A small but expanding group of prominent conservatives argue that authentic conservatism leads away from capital punishment. Some of the names, ranging from Jeb Bush to Newt Gingrich to Rick Perry, are surprising. The death penalty is as popular as ever with many conservatives, naturally, but methods of dealing death are not. Inefficiency inevitably costs money, and wasteful government inefficiency is not a conservative virtue.

Nebraska, for example, has spent $100 million on death-penalty cases since the U.S. Supreme Court affirmed the constitutionality of the death penalty in 1976, and has executed only three men. This hardly argues that money spent executing criminals is cost-efficient. Curiously, it’s often Republican governors who have restrained the executioner. The late Winthrop Rockefeller, the governor of Arkansas, commuted the sentences of 15 prisoners when he left office.

But no other governor has acted with the boldness of George Ryan in Illinois, who in one swoop spared 163 lives in 2003, even as he was fighting accusations of the personal misdeeds that seem to be in the DNA of Illinois governors.

“The facts that I have seen in reviewing each and every one of these cases raised questions not only about the innocence of people on death row,” he said, “but about the fairness of the death penalty system as a whole. Our capital system is haunted by the demon of error: error in determining guilt and determining who among the guilty deserves to die.”

The Arkansas festival of death is unusual only that it is death by wholesale. Innocent men have died on the gallows, in the electric chair and by riding the poison needles in many places. The guilt is shared by all of us.

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