LITTLE ROCK — Legislators sought advice Wednesday on how to address problems with the state’s system of carrying out executions from Attorney General Dustin McDaniel.
They got none from the state’s top legal officer, who repeated his recent assertion that the state should fix the system or abolish the death penalty.
"I have stewed and stewed on what to tell you in response to the question that I knew was coming," McDaniel said during a joint meeting of the Senate and House judiciary committees. "There are very few options."
McDaniel said extended litigation over lethal injection and a dwindling supply of the drugs needed to carry out the death penalty have made it very difficult, if not impossible, for the state to execute a death-row inmate. The Legislature must decide if it is worth the cost — from the trial through legal challenges to actually carrying out the death penalty — to put someone on death row when lawmakers know its likely the inmate will never be executed, he said.
The attorney general said lawmakers could pressure the state’s congressional delegation to have Congress change the law that prohibits the Federal Drug Administration from allowing the importation of drugs used for executions. McDaniel noted that a federal appeals court in Washington, D.C., upheld the law in a ruling Tuesday.
He also told lawmakers that legal challenges to the death penalty, including a lawsuit challenging the execution law the Legislature approved this year setting specific procedures and drugs to be used in putting a prisoner to death, must be addressed.
McDaniel noted that many supporters of the death penalty point to the success Texas has had in running its system — Arkansas’ neighbor is the nation’s most prolific state in executions. But he pointed out that despite managing to stockpile its execution drugs, Texas is now down to 23 doses, many of which have expiration dates in the near future.
He said Arkansas tried to stockpile drugs two years ago when it purchased some from a European company, but later turned the drugs over to the DEA when questions arose about whether several states’ correction agencies were skirting federal law by purchasing the drugs from outside the country.
Sen. Jeremy Hutchinson, R-Little Rock, asked about other forms of execution.
"Of course we don’t know for sure how the court would view an execution by firing squad or gas chamber or electric chair, but I think I have a pretty good guess," McDaniel said. "Although the specific factual issues and the challenge to execution by one of those alternative methods would be different, the legal issues regarding claims of cruelty, and the possibility of undue pain or mistake, would be exactly the same as the claims raised in the legal injection."
Currently, 37 condemned prisoners are on death row in Arkansas, which has not carried out an execution since 2005.
Gov. Mike Beebe told reporters Wednesday it is "doubtful" any executions will take place while he is governor. His second and final term will expire in early January 2015.
"The whole process is a long, drawn-out process anyway, and then you throw those other current factors in on the status of the law, there’s a lot of obstacles there," Beebe said.
The governor has said that if the Legislature were to approve legislation to end the death penalty in Arkansas, he would sign it. He said Wednesday he has conflicted emotions about the death penalty.
"I’ve always said I was in favor of the death penalty; I thought with certain kinds of crimes it was appropriate. That doesn’t mean that the weight of it doesn’t really come home to roost when you’re the guy that has to be the final say," he said.
Speaking against the death penalty at Wednesday’s legislative hearing were Didi Sallings with the Arkansas Public Defender Commission and Sam Kooistra, executive director of the Arkansas Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty.
Kooistra said a number of studies have found that the death penalty is not a deterrent and that it costs a state about twice as much to condemn someone to death compared to sentencing them to life in prison without the possibility of parole.
"If we’re spending money on the death penalty to make our states safer, we’re getting ripped off," Kooistra said.