Upcoming executions spark debate

Friday, April 14, 2017

Arkansas has not put anyone to death since November 2005.

No state has ever executed eight people over ten days. Now Arkansas has announced plans to execute eight men [since this letter was written it has been reduced to seven], all convicted of capital murder, between April 17 and April 27. Governor Asa Hutchinson set the dates based upon Attorney General Leslie Rutledge’s request. Rutledge said that all appeals and court reviews, ongoing for more than a decade, have been exhausted. “It is time to honor the verdicts and sentences imposed by juries decades ago.”

If the Constitution assures each person’s right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, what happens when someone takes another’s life? What happens to that killer’s right to life?

Supporters of the death penalty believe that capital murderers forfeit their right to life. Opponents of the death penalty advocate life in prison without parole, claiming that such an existence is worse than death. One wonders, if prison is indeed intolerable, why death row inmates repeatedly file appeals and request clemency.

Jack Harold Jones, Jr., one of the inmates facing execution, received the death penalty for raping and murdering Mary Phillips. "I shall not ask to be forgiven," Jones, Jr said, adding that he never wanted clemency. "There's no way in hell I would spend another 20 years in this hellhole." Yet Mary Phillips’ daughter Lacey states that she and her family are ready to be done fighting against Jones' multiple applications for clemency.

Controversial topics like capital punishment are complex and highly emotional. Unfortunately, emotional justifications on both sides have become tied to hot button issues like race, religion, and morality. Consider the appeal by best-selling author John Grisham published in USA Today where he uses his celebrity to try to stay the executions. He cites the alleged inadequacy of the anesthesia inducing drug Midazolam that renders inmates unconscious before they are given drugs that paralyze and kill them. Proponents maintain that the drug is effective if properly administered.

Grisham also claims that those inmates scheduled to die have not had adequate time to file for clemency hearings. In fact, five of the inmates have already had hearings. Four were denied clemency, and one was recommended for clemency at the governor’s discretion. The remaining three declined to ask for clemency hearings. Nevertheless, on April 10th each appeared before the parole board.

People believe arguments that support what they want to hear. For each argument for or against the death penalty, there is an equally compelling counter argument. Not one reason cited on either side has more merit than its opposite. So what is the answer?

Our country is governed by law, not by individuals making arbitrary decisions. Our justice system, which enforces the law, is symbolized by scales that represent the weighing of evidence. Our justice system balances the importance of the perpetrator’s rights with those of the victim’s.

If a person lies about someone, restitution demands that the liar set the record straight. If a person steals from someone, restitution demands that the thief return the stolen property or reimburse its worth. Under certain circumstances, if a person takes someone’s life, restitution by law demands something of comparable value—the murderer’s life.

The law of the land prescribes capital punishment for capital murder convictions only in cases involving: multiple murders; aggravated sexual assault, arson, or kidnapping; murdering intentionally during commission of a felony; paying someone to commit a murder; murdering for pay; murdering while escaping prison; murder of a child under the age of six; murder with guns; murder during a robbery or rape; murder while hijacking an aircraft. Despite the strong emotional response to the contrary, capital punishment is justified under the law.