Brenda Blagg: Hanging on, for life

Battle over state’s death penalty in high gear

Posted: April 19, 2017 at 1 a.m.

We, the people of the state of Arkansas, did not collectively kill anyone Monday night.

We were scheduled to. And we may yet, maybe as soon as Thursday, depending on how still-pending and perhaps yet-to-be-filed lawsuits are resolved.

Individual judges and appellate courts in Arkansas and all the way to Washington, D.C., are working overtime to hear and decide questions of life and death for a group of condemned men on Arkansas' death row.

Gov. Asa Hutchinson's original plan -- to execute eight men, two a day on consecutive Mondays and Thursdays -- has been upended by the continuing litigation, including the stay that stopped the first of the scheduled executions.

The U.S. Supreme Court blocked the execution of Don Davis, convicted of the 1990 murder of Jane Daniel of Rogers, a wife and mother of four.

His death warrant expired at midnight Monday, just 15 minutes after the highest court in the land refused to lift a stay granted earlier in the day.

The other man spared on Monday is Bruce Earl Ward, convicted in the 1989 murder of a young Little Rock convenience-store clerk, Rebecca Lynn Doss.

The Arkansas Supreme Court had on Monday stayed the executions of both men, awaiting a U.S. Supreme Court decision in a pending Alabama case related to the mental health-related defense of indigents.

Arkansas Attorney General Leslie Rutledge chose to appeal Davis' stay to the U.S. Supreme Court, but not Ward's.

The push was on to get these and six more executions done before the state's supply of Midazolam expires at month's end. Midazolam is one of three drugs in Arkansas' lethal injection protocol.

The arguments came fast and furiously during Easter week as attorneys for the inmates challenged not only the drugs to be used but also the mental health of the men to be executed and the impact of all this killing on their executioners.

A small corps of people are assigned the actual duty, but all of the citizens of the state hold some responsibility when a person is executed.

This is our law, our collective will that is being satisfied in the courtroom when such a sentence is meted out and in the death chamber, if and when someone is put to death.

The responsibility should weigh on us all. Demonstrations and vigils around the state in recent weeks and the blinding glare of national and international attention to this "spree" of planned executions have certainly forced us to re-examine the issue.

The attending circus will continue this week as the immediate fate of five more condemned men is decided. Arkansas may or may not execute its first inmate in 12 years.

Despite it all, polls have shown a majority of Arkansans favor the death penalty. Its flaws and the inevitable delay that comes with a death sentence don't seem to matter.

Many want finality, even if the punishment is literally decades in coming. Some of the families of the victims want that, too. But not all do.

Family members of murdered spouses and children all share a life-long agony, an emptiness in their hearts that can't be repaired by a killer's execution.

Nevertheless, it is the families of the murder victims for whom prosecutors, the governor and attorney general and countless other officials insist they want this ultimate punishment.

Nationally, the appetite for the death penalty has waned some. It isn't as strong in Arkansas as it once was, but it is still strong.

The citizens of this state need to accept that the death penalty really is imposed by our collective will. We, through our lawmakers, make it available to juries.

Courts may order defendants to die.

The governor may sign their death warrants. The attorney general may defend the process. These people may believe in what they are doing, but their authority comes from us, the people of Arkansas.

If enough are uncomfortable with our part in the process, the people can change it. But that's not likely to happen anytime soon.

Commentary on 04/19/2017