- Associated Press - Sunday, March 30, 2014

LITTLE ROCK, Ark. (AP) - The four candidates running for Arkansas attorney general agree they want to resume executions that have been halted for nearly a decade by court challenges and shortages of the drugs used for lethal injections. One of them says the state should resort to a method that hasn’t been used in 24 years: the electric chair.

David Sterling, one of three Republicans running to be the state’s top lawyer, said he thinks the state should look to electrocution to carry out the death penalty while the state’s lethal injection law remains in limbo. Sterling is running against Leslie Rutledge and Patricia Nation for the GOP nomination. State Rep. Nate Steel is the only Democrat running for the post.

“The electric chair is still authorized to be used in executions in the state of Arkansas. The electric chair has withstood constitutional scrutiny throughout the country for many, many decades. And so with it being available as a method of execution, I’m not sure why we’re not employing it,” Sterling told The Associated Press last week.

Sterling raised the electric chair as a possibility while he talked about how to restart the state’s executions. Arkansas has 33 inmates on death row, but hasn’t executed anyone since 2005. A Pulaski County judge in February granted a motion by nine death row inmates to halt executions, ruling that the state Legislature last year gave too much authority to the Correction Department when it designated the agency director as the person who picks the drug for lethal injections. The state is appealing.

The judge’s ruling was the latest hurdle in Arkansas for the death penalty, a process that Democratic Attorney General Dustin McDaniel called “broken” last year because of ongoing court challenges and drug shortages. Gov. Mike Beebe, a Democrat, has said he would sign into law legislation abolishing the death penalty if it reached his desk.

Lawmakers in other states facing obstacles similar to Arkansas’ have floated the idea of resorting to old execution methods such as firing squads and gas chambers. Arkansas hasn’t used electrocution to execute anyone since 1990, and the state’s electric chair now sits in a museum.

Sterling has also said he’ll propose changing the state law to call for using pentobarbital as the drug in lethal injections, and says the names of businesses that manufacture and deliver the drug should be exempt from Arkansas’ Freedom of Information laws. Sterling said exempting those records would prevent death penalty opponents from targeting manufacturers and pharmacies that provide the drug.

Sterling’s rivals in the May 20 primary and the sole Democrat running agree they want to resume executions, but say resorting to the electric chair is going too far.

“I think the more humane way is the cocktail,” Rutledge said, referring to the combination of drugs used in lethal injections.

Nation questioned whether the electric chair would violate the U.S. Constitution’s ban on cruel and unusual punishment.

“With the progress that we’ve made in this area, there’s no reason to go back to the electric chair,” she said. “We have come way far in our country.”

Steel, who sponsored the lethal injection law that was struck down, said he’s committed to resuming executions in the state but said he doesn’t believe electrocution isn’t something courts would allow.

“If the court is going to equivocate on what kind of barbiturates we’re going to use, I’m certain they would take issue with and strike down more antiquated methods like electric chairs and public hangings,” he said.

The idea also isn’t publicly embraced by any of the candidates for governor, who would have to sign an execution warrant. Former U.S. Rep. Asa Hutchinson and Little Rock businessman Curtis Coleman, who are both seeking the GOP gubernatorial nomination, said they support the death penalty but wouldn’t advocate Arkansas using the electric chair again.

“I believe the most humane means has proven to be lethal injection and while we’re having problems right now in having access to the right chemicals, I hope we can resolve that just as other states have,” Hutchinson said.

Coleman agreed: “I’m not sure killing someone is humane, but if we have to do it and I think there’s instances where it’s required, let’s do it in a way that doesn’t offend the civility of Arkansans and their sense of compassion even in those instances. I wouldn’t support using the electric chair again.”

Former U.S. Rep. Mike Ross said he supports the death penalty, but stopped short of endorsing or opposing specific ways to carry it out - including the electric chair.

“I support the death penalty and I would work with the Legislature and attorneys to carry out the death penalty in a way that’s constitutional,” Ross said.

Lynette Bryant, a substitute teacher who’s also seeking the Democratic nomination, declined to say whether she supports the death penalty or using the electric chair.

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Follow Andrew DeMillo on Twitter at www.twitter.com/ademillo


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