By Steve Brawner
© 2015 by Steve Brawner Communications, Inc.
Sometime in the very near future, a night will come when Arkansas will execute its first inmate since 2005.
Eight inmates have exhausted their appeals, and a recent U.S. Supreme Court ruling seems to remove the biggest obstacle that has kept them alive – concerns over the effectiveness of the sedative that puts the condemned to sleep before the lethal drugs are administered. Still, there will be legal challenges, including one already filed over a state law passed this year that shields the identities of the drugs’ vendors.
The night of the first execution, assuming it occurs, Gov. Asa Hutchinson will be the one person in the world who could throw a life preserver to a drowning man – who, of course, will have been convicted beyond a reasonable doubt of drowning someone else. Hutchinson alone could stop the execution with a phone call.
Asked in his office if he’d considered what that night will be like, the former director of the Drug Enforcement Administration, undersecretary of the Department of Homeland Security, and U.S. attorney, said, “I’ve been in law enforcement a long time, but I haven’t thought about that. … It’s a serious thing. My objectives in life in terms of these type of cases is that you’re sure that the system works; that innocence is protected; guilt is established; and the system works; and it is reviewed; and they have competent counsel; then it’s my responsibility to carry out the law. We’re not there yet, so … you just simply do your duty until you get to that moment and you address it then.”
Some previous governors have felt more personally responsible. Hutchinson’s predecessor, Gov. Mike Beebe, never had to preside over an execution and said he was glad he didn’t. Gov. Mike Huckabee did preside over executions, and it troubled him to his core.
In January 1997, Arkansas efficiently executed three men in one night. Three weeks before it happened, I asked the then-new governor in a press conference how he felt about his role in the process. It was not his first execution. He said it was much easier to talk about the death penalty before he was responsible for carrying one out. Tears appeared in his eyes as he described the burden he felt.
“”There’s never a night in a person’s life that’s more god-awful, gut-wrenching than the night you personally have the responsibility to stop a man’s death, or not,” he said. “Anybody who feels good about it is a very sick person.”
Despite his misgivings, Huckabee allowed those executions, and others, to proceed. One of his predecessors, Gov. Winthrop Rockefeller, did not. Deeply opposed to the death penalty, he ordered a stay of all executions. After his defeat in 1970, he announced that he was commuting the sentences of all 15 men on Death Row.
“What earthly mortal has the omnipotence to say who among us shall live and who shall die? I do not,” he said in an emotional news conference. “Moreover, in that the law grants me authority to set aside the death penalty, I cannot and will not turn my back on lifelong Christian teachings and beliefs merely to let history run out its course on a fallible and failing theory of punitive justice.”
On Dec. 31, 1970, two days after that announcement, Rockefeller visited what had been Death Row and personally spoke to each inmate there. His 22-year-old son, Win, was at his side as an observer. The man who defeated Rockefeller, Dale Bumpers, later said he appreciated his predecessor commuting those sentences because it meant he would not have to preside over any executions.
Will Hutchinson be as conflicted as Huckabee, Bumpers or Beebe? It seems unlikely.
For a man who has spent much of his life in law enforcement, the execution will be the last act in a process that has involved many steps and many people. It will be the judicial process that will be responsible – and of course, the condemned. A horrific crime was committed, a fair trial occurred, and guilt was determined beyond reasonable doubt. And so while theoretically on that night he could toss that life preserver, I don’t think he’ll see that as part of his role.
He’ll see his role as carrying out the law regarding executions, while some previous governors couldn’t help but feel like they were sort of the executioner itself.