"The gut-wrenching reality of being the last person that takes somebody’s life."
Those are the words Gov. Mike Beebe used in an interview to describe what it’s like to sign a condemned prisoner’s death warrant knowing he is the only person who can commute the sentence.
Beebe has signed four such warrants. In his six years in office, none of the cases have advanced to the execution chamber. He’s spent the past six years hoping that day doesn’t come.
This is the subject of a column because Beebe, now 66 and nearing the end of his second term, is becoming an uncommonly open book for an elected official. When he was asked about the death penalty during a recent public appearance in Little Rock, he told the crowd that he would sign legislation ending it were it presented to him, which it won’t be.
It will not be part of his legislative package in this, the final session of his political career.
He told the crowd, and repeated in the interview, that he hasn’t had a major philosophical change on the issue. He questions if the death penalty is a deterrent, especially for crimes of passion. He wonders about society’s role in retribution. But he’s aware that, for some murder victims’ families, an execution offers some closure. They know that the murderer who took their loved one’s life won’t be watching the Super Bowl in his cell.
"The big evolution for me is more personal, and it’s more centered around my own conscience and my own feeling of real dread in being the person that does it," he said.
Beebe did not become governor by accident. Friends tell him he talked about running for the office in college, though he doesn’t remember that. He became attorney general after an influential state Senate career. In that capacity, he would send a letter to Gov. Mike Huckabee informing him that prisoners’ appeals had been exhausted, and it was time to sign a death warrant. That bothered him then, too.
So he knew what he was getting into. Still, he didn’t appreciate the personal toll it would take until he became governor and signed his first death warrant early in his first term. "You can know about it; you can hear about it; you can know it’s a possibility. But until you’re actually the last signature, until you’re actually the one that says, ‘All right, put him to death,’ it didn’t rise to the same level," he said.
He has not discussed his feelings with other governors ("It’s real personal"), including previous ones from Arkansas. But he suspects all governors wrestle with the issue regardless of their public stance. As he was leaving office in 1970, Gov. Winthrop Rockefeller commuted the sentences of every prisoner on death row. The man who defeated him, Dale Bumpers, later said he was glad he had done that. The only time I ever saw Huckabee get emotional was when I asked him in a press conference what it was like to preside over an execution.
The law is the law. Beebe said that, after reading every word of the trial transcripts on those death penalty cases, he was convinced of the condemned men’s guilt. If their appeals are exhausted before he leaves office, he plans on reluctantly carrying out his constitutional duty.
Arkansas will have another governor in two years, and candidates are already lining up for the job. It’s got a great title. You can change the state a little and get your name in the Arkansas history books. It comes with a free house.
And it also comes with a gut-wrenching reality. He or she will be the one who says, "All right, put him to death."
Steve Brawner is an independent journalist in Arkansas. His blog — Independent Arkansas — is linked at arkansasnews.com. His e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org