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Analysis: Arkansas returns to center of execution debate

August 26, 2017

LITTLE ROCK, Ark. (AP) — Gov. Asa Hutchinson’s decision to schedule a convicted murderer’s execution this fall puts Arkansas back at the center of the death penalty debate months after the state resumed executions following a nearly 12-year lull. But his announcement that he will spare the life of a murderer the state had planned to execute earlier this year offers some hope to death penalty opponents that he can be swayed in some cases.

Hutchinson’s announcement that convicted murderer Jack Greene would be put to death on Nov. 9 came a little over a week after the state said it found a new supply of the controversial sedative that prompted its initial unprecedented plan to execute eight inmates over an 11-day period. The state only conducted half of those executions before its supply of midazolam expired at the end of April. It now has enough of the drug to conduct two more lethal injections, clearing the way for Greene’s date to be set.

Less than two hours after setting Jack Greene’s execution date, Hutchinson said he intended to commute the sentence of death row inmate Jason McGehee to life without parole. McGehee was among four inmates scheduled for execution in April who were at least temporarily spared by the courts.

Scheduling Greene’s execution opens the door for a renewed legal fight over the death penalty in Arkansas, though not as hectic as the flurry of challenges that accompanied the state’s marathon schedule of lethal injections in April. Greene’s attorneys have argued that the convicted killer is severely mentally ill and should be spared from execution.

They say he suffers from a fixed delusion that prison officials and his attorneys are conspiring to cover up injuries he believes corrections officers have inflicted on him. The delusions cause Greene to twist his body and stuff his ear and nose with toilet paper to cope with pain, his attorneys said.

“In the coming weeks, it’s imperative that the appropriate decision makers consider whether the state should execute a man in such a feeble mental state,” Scott Braden, an assistant federal public defender representing Greene, said after Hutchinson set the execution date.

But another question is how his case will fit in the larger fight playing out nationally over midazolam, the sedative Arkansas uses in its lethal injection protocol that has been linked to problematic executions nationwide. Death penalty opponents say the drug is incapable of inducing unconsciousness or preventing serious pain.

The pending execution could prompt renewed questions about whether the sedative worked in one of Arkansas’ executions in April. Kenneth Williams, who was put to death on April 27, lurched and convulsed 20 times during his execution. Williams’ attorneys at the time called the witness accounts of the execution “horrifying” and death penalty opponents called for an outside investigation. Hutchinson said he didn’t see the need for an anything beyond a routine review of the state’s execution procedures, saying he didn’t believe there were any indications of pain by the inmate.

The state’s execution secrecy laws could also draw more scrutiny. The source of Arkansas’ new supply of midazolam is unknown, but documents show the state paid $250 in cash for enough of the drug to conduct two executions. An expert has said the purchase suggests Arkansas has found a reliable supplier.

The clemency granted McGehee, meanwhile, offers some hope to death penalty opponents and even to Greene. Hutchinson cited the Parole Board’s recommendation for McGehee’s commutation, as well as the disparity in sentence given to McGehee compared to other co-defendants in the death of John Melbourne Jr.

“Jason’s case offers a prime example of why clemency is a necessary part of capital sentencing,” said John C. Williams, an assistant public defender representing McGehee.

Greene, too, will have a chance to ask for mercy.


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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