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Monday, April 24, 2017

As Arkansas Doubles Down on Death, a Look at the First Four

Assuming all goes according to plan, Arkansas will conduct 2 executions tonight—the nation’s first double-execution in over 15 years.

For those just catching up, tonight’s events follow what was originally the state’s plan to execute 8 people over the course of 11 days.

Of the 4 men scheduled for execution last week, 2 had their executions stayed—one is a schizophrenic, the other has organic brain damage and is intellectually disabled—and a third man’s death sentence was recommended for commutation to life without parole by the state’s parole board.  This was the first time that the Arkansas parole board has recommended commutation since 1990, a decision made in part because this man was one of several people who participated in an attack on a teenager—described as “the tragic result of a group dynamic gone wrong”—and he was the only one to receive the death penalty.  He was 20 years old at the time.  The (now retired) judge from the man’s trial wrote to the parole board that his death sentence was “excessive punishment” in light of the facts and the distinctly cruel environment in which he was raised.  

That leaves the fourth man, Ledell Lee, who was executed last Thursday night—Arkansas’s first execution since 2005.  Lee had protested his innocence from the day he was arrested until the night he was executed, 24 years later.  The Innocence Project had taken his case and fought for DNA testing, which the State of Arkansas fought tooth and nail to deny and which he never did receive.  In a dissent to the Arkansas Supreme Court’s decision denying his stay last week, one judge wrote that DNA testing was a “modest request” in light of the fact that the hair evidence used against Lee at trial “tilted in the State’s favor a very weak case based entirely on circumstantial evidence.”  For his last meal, Lee chose Holy Communion.

Both of the men who Arkansas is planning to execute tonight have admitted their guilt and taken responsibility for their crime. Maybe tonight Arkansas will finally give supporters of the death penalty executions they can feel good about.  That’s hard to say of the first Arkansas four.


Posted by Corinna Lain on April 24, 2017 at 02:19 PM | Permalink


I tend to get the sense that judges (and law prof types) propose all manner of procedural safeguards (or, from another point of view, obstacles) to capital punishment out of a vague sense that there are too many executions, or executions of the wrong people.

If so, wouldn't it be better to acknowledge the problem explicitly and have a statutory cap on the number of capital prosecutions? If we give the AG a bag of, say, one "shot" at the death penalty per 5 million population per year, then the policy of how they are used will be subject to democratic review, rather than a junior prosecutor's ambition, or an unelected judge's taste for moral rectitude (or, from another point of view, moral preening). In FL, the SCOTUS struck down judge-issued DP on a mere recommendation from a jury, while the state supreme court ruled that a 10-2 supermajority is insufficient. The former assumes juries will behave differently when the final decision is in their hands while the latter assumes the contrary (leaving out the notion that long and acrimonious jury deliberations were the actual intent of requiring unanimity). Such are the hazards of policy formed by the accretion of caselaw.

I would like to see the FL legislature pass such a cap, but contingent on the courts striking down the unanimous jury requirement. I suspect the subsequent pretzel-logic of the state supreme court will lay bare their real motivations for inventing these procedural standards. The rest of us will get some clarity on the trade-offs presented by capital punishment.

Posted by: M. Rad. | Apr 25, 2017 10:29:50 PM

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