Arkansas AG Hopes To Spark Debate About Future Of Death Penalty

Jul 11, 2013

Attorney General Dustin McDaniel

A day after Arkansas Attorney General Dustin McDaniel generated headlines by saying that the state’s death penalty system is broken, he spoke with KUAR News Thursday about his hopes that this will spark a new debate in the coming weeks about what needs to be done by the state.

You can listen to the interview, aired during All Things Considered, above.

At the Arkansas Sheriffs Association convention Wednesday in Fort Smith, McDaniel pointed to roadblocks presented by endless litigation and the inability to get the drugs needed to carry out the procedure.

Thursday he elaborated, telling KUAR “I don’t think people realize that those complicating factors make the lethal injection a non-option. It just doesn’t exist for us right now as an option.”

As I’ve said, I support the death penalty. I continue to do all that I can with my office to see that the 38 inmates on death row have their sentences completed that have been given to them by juries, but the truth is we’re going to pay lawyers in my office until they retire to litigate these cases and I don’t think that there’s any real outcome. I think it’s pointless and I think we need to revisit whether we need to continue dedicating that level of resources to something that’s not going to provide the taxpayers any real resolution.

McDaniel said there is a misconception among the public about why Arkansas has not carried out an execution since 2005 and likely won’t have one anytime soon.

They assume the reason the governor hasn’t set execution dates is because of litigation; that sooner or later the appeals will run out. Well at this point it has nothing to do with the appeals of whom the persons I’ve notified the governor that we can set dates, now it’s all about civil litigation and the availability of the drugs.

The Arkansas Department of Correction recently said a pharmaceutical company that was supplying the drugs used in the lethal injection process closed the account with the state because it didn’t want its product used in the execution process. McDaniel says other states are facing the same challenge.

That’s what’s leading other attorneys general to say that we’re going to have to revert to, in their states, the gas chamber or the electric chair. Utah just carried out an execution within the last couple of years by firing squad. And what I said in my remarks to the sheriffs, which they generally agreed with, was ‘I think that the voters of Arkansas would say, if polled, they still support the death penalty. I question whether or not the voters of Arkansas would support the death penalty if the only methods of execution are firing squad or gas chamber or electric chair because those are widely viewed as pretty barbaric.

McDaniel also told KUAR that it will be hard finding doctors willing to administer the lethal dose because of the risk that their names could be made public. In the past, physicians have been able to remain anonymous, but McDaniel said that changed because of a situation in Georgia

I can’t imagine any of the lawyers who have been litigating every subtle nuance of these death penalty cases accepting our word for it that the person administering the injection is a licensed, good standing qualified physician. They’re going to want to know who that person is. They’re going to want to know that person’s curriculum vitae and they’re going to want to depose that person and I realistically could never tell a physician who was contemplating participating that I could guarantee their anonymity.

Also, McDaniel notes the American Medical Association says it’s unethical for a physician to participate in killing an otherwise healthy human being.

The debate should be, do we continue pouring money into litigating sentences that realistically can not be carried out, or are we honest with the people about the system? We either need to abolish it or modify it. But where we sit now is a bottomless hole of money with no results feasible.

That, McDaniel says, goes back to the need to consider other ways of carrying out executions or Arkansas joining other states that don’t have a death penalty.

There’s an evolving sensibility on the part of the public on how… they want the death penalty, but what would they deem to be humane and acceptable and what would they not, and I’m not advocating one or the other. What I am saying is that our current system is completely broken, non-functioning, and I don’t know that any amount of money being poured into it is going to fix it. So we can keep throwing money into pointless litigation or we can have a new debate on what do we really want to do as a state. I don’t expect this to be resolved in my time as attorney general, but I feel that I’m uniquely situated to be the one to tell the public where we stand and so that’s what I’m trying to do, and what I will be doing over the coming weeks.