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BRUMMETT ONLINE: The itch to kill

By John Brummett

This article was published April 18, 2017 at 7:40 a.m.

I’ve never beheld such a powerful official hankering to kill and kill now as was evident Monday night in the political leadership of Arkansas.

Not to name names, but … Gov. Asa Hutchinson and Attorney General Leslie Rutledge.

The state had weathered a wild flurry of late-afternoon court decisions that shook out this way: Instead of killing seven death row inmates in 11 days starting Monday night, the state would be allowed to kill five death row inmates over a week starting Thursday night.

That was because the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, being Republican, had overturned a temporary stay of execution in all seven cases that U.S. District Judge Kristine Baker, being Democratic, had issued Saturday. She had cited questions about the appropriateness of the drugs to be used. The 8th Circuit said, oh, heck, the drugs probably won’t hurt too much.

But, minutes before that, and to my and others’ surprise, the Republican Arkansas Supreme Court had voted 4-to-3 to stay the executions of two of those seven—the two, in fact, just so happening to be scheduled for the first round of killing in two or three hours.

If you’re trying to keep score at home: The federal appeals court gave the state back seven to execute. But the state’s own high court subtracted two from the seven. That’s five to die, but none on Monday and none until Thursday.

The decisive issue for the prevailing four members of the Arkansas Supreme Court—Chief Justice Dan Kemp and Associate Justices Courtney Goodson, Jo Hart and Robin Wynne—was that one of the two had a borderline low IQ and the other had issues of mental disease.

More to the point, it turns out that the U.S. Supreme Court has accepted and soon will hear arguments on a death-penalty appeal from Alabama. And that appeal contends that death row inmates in that state raising mental-competence issues or mental health ones did not receive sufficient legal and physician advocacy for those arguments.

The four Arkansas justices on the prevailing side essentially said they wanted to let these two Arkansas fellows live for a while longer rather than kill them right away and risk having the U.S. Supreme Court rule imminently in a way that might be helpful to them—or, as it were, have been helpful to them.

Attorney General Rutledge, representing the state, had three options: She could say OK. Or she could petition the court to reconsider, and surely be turned down. Or she could seek an emergency review by the U.S. Supreme Court to try to overturn the Arkansas court and get these two guys killed before the relevant death warrants on them expired at midnight.

Actually, she had a fourth option, the one she chose: She petitioned the U.S. Supreme Court for emergency permission to kill one of the two, Donald Davis, the one with a low IQ, but not the other, whose case was more detailed.

This issue was mostly one of timing, of kill now or kill later, or of spare now a life that might be saved later. Arkansas would either kill this man Monday night, or kill him and the other later, or never kill either of them if the U.S. Supreme Court should rule in an Alabama case in a way that fortified and fueled them with new and substantive grounds for appeal.

I framed the issue this way on Twitter: “So is Arkansas going to run up to the U.S. Supreme Court to try to get to kill tonight a man with a borderline IQ … ?”

A few minutes later, I had the answer: Yes.

Then Governor Hutchinson put out a written statement in which he seemed so irritated at the postponement of scheduled Monday-night activities that his subjects and verbs were in a jumble.

Here’s the second paragraph of the governor’s written statement: “The decision [of the state Supreme Court] was not unanimous and the dissenting opinions reflect the harm the delays cause the families of the victims and it also expresses my frustration in the continued delayed justice.”

My first problem is the construction of the sentence. Is it the “decision” that “expresses” the governor’s frustration? If so, how could the Supreme Court express in a formal ruling the governor’s subsequent personal frustration over that ruling? Or is it the “dissenting opinions” that so “expresses?” I suspect the latter, because Republican state Justice Shawn Womack had been highly peeved over the majority thinking in his dissent. So, the failing is probably subject-verb.

Well, it’s also attitude. A governor appearing to be itching to kill—or frustrated that he’d been told not to start killing until Thursday—defies the kind of somber reserve that any governor and sensitive man ought to reflect in his official and personal manner on such an occasion as killing.

Essentially the state’s position—as represented by Hutchinson and Rutledge—was that Davis had to be killed Monday night because, otherwise, a subsequent U.S. Supreme Court ruling might prevent the state from ever killing him.

The conservative mantra is that a jury’s decision to impose death must be honored. That is different from the conservative mantra that a jury’s decision to award damages in a civil lawsuit should not be honored if the damages are high.

Juries are always right … except when they aren’t. You see.

Speaking of contradictions, take note that Rutledge and Hutchinson, avowed states’ rights supporters, asked the U.S. Supreme Court to take authority over an Arkansas matter from the highest Arkansas court.

By the way, this column’s reference to supposedly nonpartisan judges and justices as Republican and Democratic simply seeks to cut through what’s mostly a charade.

The U.S. Supreme Court is basically four Republicans, four Democrats and Anthony Kennedy, a Republican with occasional Democratic tendencies. That heightened Monday night’s drama.

As the clock moved past 9 p.m., with no word from the U.S. Supreme Court, state prison people fed Davis his chosen last meal … in case it was.

It wasn’t. At a few minutes of midnight, the U.S. Supreme Court turned down Hutchinson and Rutledge. There would be no killing by the state of Arkansas until Thursday, no matter how strong the state’s hankering to kill quicker, to kill now.

John Brummett, whose column appears regularly in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, was inducted into the Arkansas Writers’ Hall of Fame in 2014. Email him at jbrummett@arkansasonline.com. Read his @johnbrummett Twitter feed.

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Jfish says... April 18, 2017 at 7:59 a.m.

I wouldn't call waiting several years an itch to kill, besides John, I haven't put too much faith in your take on the justice system since you defended the jurors that would not convict Curtis Vance of rape.

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RBear says... April 18, 2017 at 8:14 a.m.

Rushing the execution just to meet a drug expiration deadline is an "itch to kill." These men aren't going anywhere. Get it right instead of "git er done."

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Vickie55 says... April 18, 2017 at 8:25 a.m.

I would be willing to bet my lunch money that none of these men will be put to death this week.

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PopulistMom says... April 18, 2017 at 8:27 a.m.

The title should be "An Itch for Justice" or "An Itch to End the Suffering of the Victims' Families." Society has a right to enforce morality. A life sentence is just not enough for some heinous acts. Some people truly deserve the death penalty.

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hah406 says... April 18, 2017 at 8:31 a.m.

RBear is correct. The state is already being criticized around the world for this fiasco of eight, then seven, now five, executions in fourteen, then eleven, now seven, days. I am not against the death penalty per se, but I absolutely do not trust the state to get this right. What will the honorable Gov. Asa do when the first inmate flops around like a fish for an hour, looking like we are torturing him, before he may or may not actually die?

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tomalstadt says... April 18, 2017 at 8:45 a.m.

Brummett, our third rate opinion columnist writes yet another biased article in which he attempts to politicize the judiciary and attack the elected officials of the State of Arkansas including our governor and attorney general. He fails to recognize that the death sentences are being executed as a result of horrendous crimes committed against society and were deemed by a jury of twelve peers too dangerous to release. The law provides in such cases that the criminals are to be executed for their crimes. He takes the opportunity to voice his admiration for the ALT-LEFT socialists of the Democrat Communist Party and his disdain for the conservatives of the Republican Party. The truth being that the execution of the law is not political at all. Brummett states, “A governor appearing to be itching to kill…”. That is quite an accusation when the Governor has taken an oath to “faithfully discharge the duties of the Governor of Arkansas”. Those duties include the execution of the law – something the liberal socialists do not like when the law opposes their perverted world view. Execution of the law provides closure to the families and friends of the victims. It prevents these criminals from committing further crimes. It acts as a deterrent from future crimes. It stops the high cost of incarceration and releases these individuals to their eternal destination – Hell if they have not repented and accepted Christ Jesus as Savior and Heaven if they have.

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mozarky2 says... April 18, 2017 at 8:59 a.m.

My hat's off to you, PopMom. You are the only progressive on this forum with a brain.

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RBear says... April 18, 2017 at 9:11 a.m.

PM, see my response in another article to you on this subject. Your quest to kill (and you do have a desire for killing masked as justice in your statements) overshadows the need to get it right. I'll leave you to read that response which goes into greater detail of the issue. I'm not against capital punishment. I'm just against a reckless implementation of it. These men are going nowhere and any mistakes by the state could set the process back further.

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KCSAP says... April 18, 2017 at 9:47 a.m.

Davis has been on death for 27 years and the opinion of Brummett is an itch to kill? Does the Demgaz actuslly pay this guy for his opinion?

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Packman says... April 18, 2017 at 10:08 a.m.

"I’ve never beheld such a powerful official hankering to kill..." Sure you have, JB. As a proud supporter of Planned Parenthood you obviously have a tremendous hankering to kill.
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Amen to what Pop said.
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Hey hah and RBear - Would you prefer me and 10 of my buddies line up with our deer rifles, two with real bullets and the rest with blanks not knowing who fires what, and simultaneously shoot the guy between the eyes at 25 steps? Once his brain explodes the question of "feeling pain" becomes irrelevant, or so we are told by science. Are you OK with that particular technique for execution? Would that be "getting it right"?

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