A string of faith and community events were held during Holy Week to mobilize Arkansans who oppose the death penalty while state and federal judges halted the executions.
U.S. District Judge Kristine Baker granted a temporary injunction April 15 for all eight inmates, saying there was “a significant possibility” that use of one of the drugs would violate their Eighth Amendment protections against “cruel and unusual punishment.” The judge also questioned the Department of Correction policy that allows only one attorney to witness the executions.
It was an unprecedented decision by Gov. Asa Hutchinson to schedule eight executions in 10 days from April 17 to 27. With one execution stayed by the courts, the state began to prepare for a series of executions April 17 with two more double executions scheduled April 20 and 24 and one on April 27. While the state hasn’t executed anyone for 12 years, it is up against an April 30 deadline because its supply of the sedative midazolam is set to expire. It is expected to be difficult to get the drug from the manufacturer going forward.
Federal judge Michael Merz in Ohio ruled that “use of midazolam as the first drug in Ohio’s present three-drug protocol will create a ‘substantial risk of serious harm’ or an ‘objectively intolerable risk of harm.’”
While inmate Don Davis was served his “last meal” and waited to be executed April 17, the Arkansas Supreme Court issued a stay on his execution and the state’s attorney general appealed, but shortly before midnight the U.S. Supreme Court declined to overturn a stay from the state’s high court.
Because of the large number of executions scheduled in a short time, high-profile advocates and national publications have tried to put pressure on Hutchinson to reverse his decision and commute the sentences to life in prison without parole.
Sister Helen Prejean, author of “Dead Man Walking,” issued a video plea on Facebook and countless posts on Twitter, and Arkansas native, former attorney and bestselling author John Grisham published a commentary in USA Today decrying the expected “spectacular legal train wreck.”
More than 200 Jewish and Christian leaders in Arkansas, including Bishop Anthony B. Taylor and 80 priests and seminarians, signed a letter that was delivered to the governor’s office April 12. Speaking at a press conference the same day in the old Supreme Court room in the state Capitol, Episcopal Bishop Larry Benfield and ministers from the Evangelical Lutheran Church and Disciples of Christ pleaded with the governor to commute the sentences. Bishop Anthony B. Taylor also attended the press conference.
Other letters were sent to the governor from national and local evangelical leaders and national and state civil rights leaders.
The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops Committee on Domestic Justice and Human Development issued a statement April 13, recalling Pope Francis’ address to Congress in 2015 asking for the death penalty to be abolished.
“The schedule of executions was not set by the demands of justice, but by the arbitrary politics of punishment. The state’s supply of a sedative is expected to expire at the end of the month, and so, in a dark irony, a safeguard that was intended to protect people is now being used as a reason to hasten their deaths,” Bishop Frank J. Dewane of the Diocese of Venice and committee chairman wrote.
Even 23 former corrections officials around the country wrote “performing so many executions in so little time will impose extraordinary and unnecessary stress and trauma on the staff responsible with carrying out the executions.”
Hutchinson called a press conference at the governor’s mansion April 13 for local media that regularly cover the governor, but Arkansas Catholic was denied entrance. According to media reports, the governor told reporters, “Those of faith have different views of their responsibility. What are the biblical standards and what are God’s standards on this and how God views this? There’s disagreement among the faith community on this topic. From my standpoint, I have two convictions: One, I think the death penalty is appropriate punishment for the most serious, heinous crimes in our society. Secondly, I have a duty as governor to faithfully execute the laws of our state.”
“I have a responsibility to voters. I have a responsibility to an oath of office and I have a responsibility to a higher power — God and eternity. And I understand that.”
“I thought about the process, the responsibility, but I thought about the victims and what they endured the last 25 years … I think it is the right judgment,” he said.
On Good Friday, more than 300 people gathered on the State Capitol steps to protest the governor’s decision. Organized by the Arkansas Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty, speakers included Bishop Taylor, Rep. Vivian Flowers of Pine Bluff, who sponsored abolition bills in the Arkansas Legislature this session, two men who were exonerated and released from death row, a family member of a murder victim and actor Johnny Depp. National television and newspaper photographers clamored to interview Depp, who came to Little Rock to support his friend Damien Echols, who spent 18 years in Arkansas’ death row for the murders of the “West Memphis Three” in 1993. Echols was released in 2011 and now lives in New York.
“We are no different than the crowd that called for Jesus’ death,” Bishop Taylor told the crowd, many of whom would be attending Good Friday events that day, “because we continue to call for the death of criminals.”
Following the rally, more than 150,000 signatures from around the country were delivered to Hutchinson’s office. The online signature drive was cosponsored by Mobilizing Catholics Against the Death Penalty.
Catholic Mobilizing Network executive director Karen Clifton said, “After the darkness of Good Friday has come a great light. This unprecedented plan to execute eight men in 10 days witnessed an extraordinary response from so many people calling for a culture of life and an end to this practice of retribution. Catholic Mobilizing Network is grateful for everyone who used their voice to stand for life this Lent.”
Bishop Taylor added, “Let us also pray for healing for the victims of the horrific crimes that those in prison have committed and for the perpetrators themselves. The Lord never gives up on anyone and neither should we.”
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