Hutchinson will wrestle less with execution role than previous governors

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.

5 thoughts on “Hutchinson will wrestle less with execution role than previous governors

  1. Reflecting on Winthrop Rockefeller and the many great things he brought to Arkansas including his stance on the death penalty…. What has happened to the Republicans in the last 40 years? It would be the rare Republican today that would dare to appear “soft” on criminals by failing to support the death penalty. Both parties have become so polarized that candidates feel they have to move lockstep with the current party lines but the Republicans have so hamstrung themselves that candidates are so afraid of being “primaried” that real values are buried under a cloak of silence.

  2. It has to be a gut wrenching decision for a public official to make. If there is no doubt that the prisoner committed murder, then it would seem that justice demands the appropriate punishment.

    “Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed, for God made man in his own image.” – Genesis 9:6 ESV

    “For rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad. Would you have no fear of the one who is in authority? Then do what is good, and you will receive his approval, for he is God’s servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword in vain. For he is the servant of God, an avenger who carries out God’s wrath on the wrongdoer.” – Romans 13:3-4 ESV

    “If then I am a wrongdoer and have committed anything for which I deserve to die, I do not seek to escape death.” – Acts 25:11a ESV

  3. Hi, Mrs. Ross. I agree that both parties are forcing their members to walk in lockstep with each other, and also that Republicans especially have hamstrung themselves. However, it can happen. If you’ll recall this column (http://independentarkansas.com/?p=1169), Nebraska Republicans actually voted to do away with the death penalty this year. Really surprised me.

  4. Hi, Ken. If we just argue it from a biblical literalist perspective, I’m not sure if we can use the Old Testament as a guide. The Bible tells a story of a people whose leaders were uniquely in touch with God (at times). We just don’t have that today. In a nation with such a fallible justice system, should judges and juries be trusted with this ultimate decision? At the same time, I don’t have a problem with putting to death those who commit truly heinous crimes, like the Boston Bomber. So I wrestle with this one myself, as usual.

  5. Wrestling is good. I do too and wish more would instead of “knowing” the truth about many complex matters. I, too, was surprised by the vote in Kansas. Have you read Just Mercies? I have not but have it on my list to read. I did read John Grisham’s book from a few years back about two innocent men who spent years on death row because local officers desperately wanted a conviction and cooked evidence to convict these two, one of whom was a high school biology teacher with no criminal record but happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time with a petty criminal. Our justice system is badly flawed and skewed for the benefit of folks like me and you, but not for hosts of others.

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