- Associated Press - Saturday, May 3, 2014

LITTLE ROCK, Ark. (AP) - Nearly a decade has passed since Arkansas executed anyone on death row, and the state’s governor says he would abolish the death penalty if legislators ever sent him such a bill. The state’s top attorney called the death penalty system broken, and a botched execution in a neighboring state has reopened the debate nationally over executions.

It’s the type of climate that should hearten death penalty opponents in Arkansas, but there’s been little to no shift politically on the issue. Instead of debating whether the state should use the death penalty, politicians are debating how to do it.

The political debate over the death penalty in Arkansas is a sharp contrast to the legal climate, where opponents have successfully blocked executions for years. The latest victory came in February, when a Pulaski County judge 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 ruling was the latest in a series of setbacks for the death penalty that prompted Attorney General Dustin McDaniel cited in declaring the state’s death penalty system “completely broken” as a result of court challenges and drug shortages.

The botched execution of a convicted killer in neighboring Oklahoma could be another setback for death penalty supporters. Convicted killer Clayton Lockett, 38, began writhing, clenching his teeth and straining to lift his head off the pillow Tuesday evening after he was supposedly rendered unconscious by the first of three drugs in the state’s new lethal injection combination. The execution was halted, and Lockett died of a heart attack about a half-hour later, authorities said.

The botched execution even prompted President Barack Obama to weigh in, telling reporters it highlighted problems with the death penalty. Based on the political debate over the death penalty in Arkansas, it’s unlikely Lockett’s death will change things much here.

To see how little the debate has changed politically in Arkansas, look no further than the race for attorney general. The three Republicans and sole Democrat running for the post all support the death penalty and say they’re committed to finding a way to resume executions in the state.

David Sterling, one of the three Republicans running for the post, has even called for the state to use the electric chair while lethal injection remains in limbo.

“And so with it being available as a method of execution, I’m not sure why we’re not employing it,” Sterling said last month. Sterling has since stepped up his support of restarting executions, casting himself in television ads as the only candidate with a plan to fix the death penalty impasse.

Sterling’s vow has drawn criticism from his rivals for the post. Fellow Republican Leslie Rutledge has dismissed Sterling’s proposal as irresponsible rhetoric, noting that the state’s only electric chair now sits in a museum.

“The electric chair is in a museum, and that’s where it belongs,” she said in a recent debate.

The debate has also changed little since Gov. Mike Beebe announced last year that he would sign legislation abolishing the death penalty if it ever reached his desk. No such proposal ever reached his desk, and legislative leaders haven’t shown any support for banning executions.

But death penalty opponents say they still see progress in their push for barring executions. Sam Kooistra, executive director of the Arkansas Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty, said the legal victories opponents have seen in recent years and comments like Beebe’s are still a hopeful sign.

“I think just people talking about it is progress,” Kooistra said. “If you talk about (the death penalty) it inevitably comes under scrutiny.”


Andrew DeMillo has covered Arkansas government and politics for The Associated Press since 2005. Follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/ademillo

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