State hunting for volunteers to witness April's 8 executions

A shortage of required citizen witnesses to watch eight lethal injections over a 10-day period next month prompted the state prison director Tuesday to call on Rotary Club members to volunteer.

Citizen witnesses are there to verify that the individual executions are carried out according to law. A volunteer must be at least 21 years old, an Arkansas resident, have no felony criminal history and have no connection to the inmate or to the victim.

"The last times these were set, we actually did not have enough people volunteer," Department of Correction Director Wendy Kelley told Little Rock Rotary Club 99 members. "You seem to be a group that does not have felony backgrounds and are over 21. So if you're interested in serving in that area, in this serious role, just call my office."

The eight executions are scheduled two at a time beginning April 17 and ending April 27.

Department of Correction spokesman Solomon Graves said he does not have a current count on the number of citizen witnesses who have signed up for the role. Kelley is making informal inquiries to find more volunteers, he said.

"Depending on the response received, further recruitment may not be necessary," Graves said.

The state's death penalty law, A.C.A. 16-90-502, Section 3, requires that the prison director procure no fewer than six and no more than 12 citizen witnesses for each execution. Kelley must determine that witnesses meet the requirements and that they do not present a security risk.

Graves said that while the legal requirement pertains to each individual execution, "nothing prohibits a witness from service during multiple executions."

Judd Deere, spokesman for Attorney General Leslie Rutledge, said he could not speculate about the impact on the execution schedule if a sufficient number of citizen witnesses can't be found.

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As the execution day approaches, "the attorney general will work in consultation with the governor and the Department of Correction director to make sure the law is followed as far as executions being carried out," Deere said.

Graves would not say whether the lack of witnesses would halt or postpone the executions, only that Kelley would "continue her informal recruitment efforts."

Finding volunteers among members of the Little Rock Rotary Club 99 may be difficult, said Bill Booker, acting president of the club.

"What I suspect is that some people might support the death penalty, but when it comes to witnessing something like that, it's a different story," Booker said Tuesday. "It may cause emotional trauma for quite a while. It would be one of the most significant things you'll ever see in your life."

Booker, a funeral director at Roller Funeral Home in Little Rock, said he will not volunteer for the task.

"It's a lot different to be involved after the death has occurred," Booker said, adding that he vividly remembers stopping to help at the scene of a fatal traffic accident 40 years ago and helping a young man as he was dying.

Viewing an execution would be too much for him, he said.

"At this point in my life, I don't know if I'd want to risk being traumatized by it," Booker said. "That doesn't mean that I oppose the death penalty."

Rotarian Charlotte Gadberry said she has no interest in volunteering as a citizen witness.

"I can't imagine she [Kelley] will get a lot of volunteers," Gadberry said. "I don't think I could handle it. I'm not real sure how I feel about the death penalty, but it seems like there should be a better way of treating our fellow man."

Rotarian Karen Fetzer said she would not witness an execution but that Kelley may find some volunteers in the Rotary Club 99 crowd.

"It's just a personal preference for me," Fetzer said. "But there are others in our population who may be up for it."

None of the handful of Arkansas residents interviewed Tuesday by the Democrat-Gazette said they would volunteer for the assignment.

Charles Moore of Camden, who served two tours during the Vietnam War, said he's seen enough death in his lifetime.

"I stacked bodies on top of each other in Vietnam," said Moore, a retired disabled veteran who operates the Camden nonprofit children's foundation Planting A Seed. "I don't believe in an eye for an eye."

The subject spurred an argument between Jayme Hickman of Little Rock and her mother, Linda Fitzhugh, of Sheridan as they were sitting on a hill in the River Market District in Little Rock watching Hickman's two children play.

"No," Hickman said, shaking her head. "I don't agree with killing a person. Both families lose in that situation."

Fitzhugh interrupted by directing Hickman's gaze to the two children.

"What would you do if they hurt your daughters? They should execute them," Fitzhugh said loudly. "We don't need to be taking care of them with taxpayers' money."

In the end, Fitzhugh admitted that she couldn't bring herself to witness an execution.

Betty Fernau of Conway, who has officiated at weddings in prison, suggested a solution to the problem.

"I've heard jury duty can be traumatizing, depending on the case," Fernau said. "It seems like this is part of our judicial system. Finding witnesses should work the same way as calling jurors to a trial.

"If I were called to witness, I would see it as my duty and I would appear. But I would not volunteer."

Graves said anyone interested in volunteering should contact Kelley in writing at P.O. Box 8707, Pine Bluff, Ark. 71611.

The pace of the scheduled executions -- prompted by the fact that midazolam, one of the three lethal-injection drugs, will expire at the end of April -- is unprecedented not only for the state, but for the nation.

If the eight executions are carried out next month, Arkansas will be the first state to execute that many inmates in that compressed of a timeline since 1976 -- the year the U.S. Supreme Court reinstated the death penalty.

Arkansas has executed 27 inmates since 1976. The quickest pace for executions was three in one day on Aug. 3, 1994, and Jan. 8, 1997.

Department of Correction data show that 189 men and one woman have been executed in the state since 1915, when executions first began being tracked.

During that time, the most inmates executed in one year in Arkansas was 10 in 1926 and 1930. The most executed within close proximity on the calendar was four in one day on Feb. 12, 1926, and Nov. 14, 1930. There were four executions in the month of October 1959 and the month of May 1960.

Kelley said Tuesday that the close proximity of the eight execution dates will not affect the department's readiness for the lethal injections.

"The staff will be prepared," Kelley said. "We will be doing practice rounds and having lots of meetings. The protocols are confidential, but we will be prepared. We want everything to go as smoothly as possible for the inmate as well as the staff in the room and the witnesses."

With the execution dates fast approaching, the atmosphere at the Varner Unit's Supermax -- home to 34 male death-row inmates -- is somber, Kelley said.

"I don't think the eight executions in 10 days has anything to do with it," Kelley said. "I think the fact that an execution is set for any of them would make it somber back there."

No extra security has been assigned to the unit, Kelley said. When the proclamation from Gov. Asa Hutchinson setting the execution dates was released in late February, each of the inmates was seen in private. Prison chaplains have made repeated rounds on death row, helping each inmate determine whether he wants a spiritual adviser and, if so, assisting in appointing one.

"I've been down there since the date was set," Kelley said. "It doesn't have anything to do with the number of inmates being executed. It's just part of the process."

The last inmate to be executed in the state was Eric Nance on Nov. 29, 2005. The state has not put anyone to death since then because of legal challenges to the state's death penalty process and a federal lawsuit opposing the use of the drug midazolam. Death penalty opponents claim that the drug does not induce a complete level of unconsciousness, which allows the inmate to feel pain.

On Monday, attorneys for nine death row inmates -- including the eight scheduled to die next month -- filed a petition for a rehearing with the U.S. Supreme Court. The argument is that the two executions at a time within the 10-day time frame is "truly extraordinary" and presents substantial new ground for considering the prisoners' case.

"Executing eight men in ten days is far outside the bounds of what contemporary society finds acceptable," the petition read.

According to the governor's proclamations, the executions are scheduled to be carried out as follows:

• Don Davis and Bruce Earl Ward, April 17.

• Ledelle Lee and Stacey Johnson, April 20.

• Marcell Williams and Jack Jones Jr., April 24.

• Jason McGehee and Kenneth Williams, April 27.

A Section on 03/22/2017

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