FORT SMITH — The state attorney general declared Arkansas’ system for carrying out executions broken Wednesday and called for a serious public discussion about the practice.
Attorney General Dustin McDaniel said he still supports the death penalty as a policy but that the method of execution is "completely broken."
"What I want is for us to discontinue treating the lethal injection as the legal fallacy that it is," McDaniel said during a speech at the Arkansas Sheriffs’ Association summer convention here. "Frankly, I don’t think we are telling jurors the truth when we lead them to believe that they are sentencing someone to death when we really don’t have a viable system with which to execute someone."
McDaniel said he believes most Arkansans support lethal injection but would consider other methods of execution, such as the electric chair, gas chamber or firing squad, to be "too barbaric for a civilized society."
Arkansas has 37 inmates on death row, according to the state Department of Correction. The state last executed a death-row inmate in 2005.
McDaniel said Wednesday that seven convicted inmates have exhausted their appeals but still do not have a set execution date.
In May, the attorney general asked Gov. Mike Beebe to set execution dates for the seven when the state Supreme Court lifted stays the court imposed while it considered a lawsuit challenging the state’s method of lethal injection. The high court ultimately declared the method unconstitutional and the Legislature this year adopted a new chemical regimen and new procedures for carrying out the death penalty.
Beebe said in June he would defer setting execution dates after death-row inmates sued to overturn the new execution law and a pharmaceutical company voided its account with the state Department of Correction after learning the state planned to use drugs it had purchased from the company for executions.
McDaniel voiced his frustration Wednesday.
"It’s time for the policy makers of Arkansas to say, ‘Do we continue with a broken system and throwing money and resources at essentially pointless litigation, or do we modify the system?’" he said. "And there’s only really two modifications that I see available — it’s either abolish the death penalty or change the method of execution."
The problem that state lethal injection presents is that there are no viable execution drugs available for the state to purchase, and even if there were, the American Medical Association says it’s unethical for physicians to take part in ending someone’s life, McDaniel said.
Civil litigation in death-penalty cases is also more burdensome than any other type of appeal. The average convicted inmate in the state spends 15 years on death row, McDaniel said.
The system has evolved, as has McDaniel’s view on the punishment, since he took office in 2007, he said.
"This has evolved nationally in my time as attorney general. The civil litigation has changed both its nature and its effectiveness since I’ve become attorney general; the availability of the drugs has completely changed in my time as attorney general," McDaniel said. "This was not the state of the law or the facts when I became attorney general."
Stacy Ryburn writes for the Times Record in Fort Smith.