In the crosshairs of conscience: John Kitzhaber's death penalty reckoning

To cope with his dread, John Kitzhaber opened his leather-bound journal and began to write.
It was a little past 9 on the morning of Nov. 22, 2011. Gary Haugen had dropped his appeals. A Marion County judge had signed the murderer's death warrant, leaving Kitzhaber, a former emergency room doctor, to decide Haugen's fate. The 49-year-old would soon die by lethal injection if the governor didn't intervene.
Kitzhaber was exhausted, having been unable to sleep the night before, but he needed to call the families of Haugen's victims.
"I know my decision will delay the closure they need and deserve," he wrote.
The son of University of Oregon English professors, Kitzhaber began writing each day in his journal in the early 1970s. The practice helped him organize his thoughts and, on that particular morning, gather his courage.
Kitzhaber first dialed the widow of David Polin, an inmate Haugen beat and stabbed to death in 2003 while already serving a life sentence fo…

World's media focusing in on Arkansas upcoming executions

Executions have been set for (top row, from left) Kenneth Williams, Jack Jones Jr., Marcell Williams, Bruce Earl Ward, and (bottom row, from left) Don Davis, Stacey Johnson, Jason McGehee and Ledelle Lee.
Executions have been set for (top row, from left) Kenneth Williams,
Jack Jones Jr., Marcell Williams, Bruce Earl Ward, and (bottom row, from
left) Don Davis, Stacey Johnson, Jason McGehee and Ledelle Lee.
All eyes are on Arkansas as executions for 8 people draw near

Only a few hundred people live in the town of Grady, but actions that may take place there are drawing the attention of millions. 8 inmates are scheduled to be executed there, leading to an unusual level of attention for Arkansas.

"Arkansas is not a major media hub, and we're not really connected to any major media hubs, so it's sort of rare to get that national coverage in the state," said Professor Dylan McLemore, an associate professor in the communications department at University of Central Arkansas. "So when it does happen, it sort of stands out."

Reporters from both coasts and beyond have traveled to Arkansas to cover the planned executions. Among the publications are the Los Angeles Times and Time Magazine, but journalists have come from as Germany to share details about the justice system in Arkansas.

"For [Germans], it is unimaginable," explained David Hammelburg, a producer for the German broadcasting network ARD. "We then think, oh, okay, that's what they do in Iran and Saudi Arabia. I mean, that's how bad it gets."

Hammelburg has spent nearly a year covering the execution process. His work grew out of a story about the company that makes one of the drugs frequently used in lethal injections, and then picked up steam when Governor Asa Hutchinson scheduled the 8 executions for a 10-day span.

"So it just sort of fell into this perfect little story," Hammelburg added. "I thought it was unique and compelling in every sense of the word."

"This is the sort of story that is going to attract national attention, because of just the uniqueness of it, the uniqueness of the time span," McLemore, who studies the media's impact on consumers, mentioned. "I mean, we haven't seen a time span like this for executions since the death penalty was reinstituted. So it's unique in that fact.

"There's conflict going on, there's proponents and opponents. There's interest groups that are getting involved in this, as well. There's also the drama of, like, there's going to be court battles up to the final hour. And we might not want to admit it, but that drama is part of what drives news coverage."

There is also an interest in the timing of the execution schedule. Of the 3 drugs Arkansas uses, one of them, midazolam, will expire at the end of April, leading some people to believe the state is rushing the process.

But Germans have more than 1 reason to care. Hammelburg estimated that nearly 90 % of Europeans oppose the death penalty, so they are fascinated by the fact that so many American states still use it.

"And this one in particular, because of the fact that there was such a time rush to use the last 8 vials that were still non-expired to kill the list of 8 people," he stated. "We found that Draconian, insane, and, really, downright scary."

Additionally, Germans have economic reasons to learn more about the state of Arkansas. The state's Economic Development Commission opened a special office in Berlin last year to encourage more trade between German and Arkansan companies. "We thought it would be only just and right that the people of Germany could sort of understand who they're doing business with," Hammelburg stated.

Deborah Robinson has also spent a long time with this story. She is a freelance journalist who works in both Little Rock and Las Vegas, and has spent most of the last 2 years writing a book about the 8 inmates.

"They were in a place where most of us will never go: knowing the day, the time, the place, and how they will die," Robinson said. "They have to go through something emotionally, spiritually, physically, and all of that, and I wanted to be able to tell that story."

She has noticed the influx of out-of-town reporters, many of whom have likely never visited Arkansas before. She said she worries that they are likely to bring the values of their hometowns with them, which may hinder their ability to cover the story.

"Most of the reports that are going back out are saying, 'What is Arkansas doing,'" she noted. "Most of the op-eds that are out there, most of the letters to the editors, most of the media coverage is anti-Arkansas on this issue."

McLemore found that much of the coverage from outlets around the country is 2nd-hand, relying on local organizations to provide the basis of their stories. That can make their coverage less complete than if they had someone at the scene, but he does not share Robinson's fear of bias.

"That's possible, but these are also trained professionals," he said, "and you would hope, from the caliber of organizations we're seeing come here, we're seeing some of the best of the best at doing this.

"And I'm not a believer in widespread media bias, and out-to-get-everybody. I know that's a common perception, especially now, but I think most of these reporters are trying to do an honest job to tell a complete story, and they're going to try to do that here in Arkansas, too."

Arkansas has received more national attention in the last two weeks than it had in years. Many news agencies tracked the legislative debate about concealed carry that ended with an exemption for Razorback Stadium and other college sporting events. Now others are shining a light on the execution process, including the clemency hearings for 6 of the death row inmates.

Hammelburg, for his part, thinks the attention on Arkansas is not likely to last. "Because of the rush, and the tight deadline, I think is kind of a one-off," he explained. "But it wouldn't surprise me if people really start paying very close attention to the state of Arkansas."

Source: KTHV TV news, April 4, 2017

The Arkansas 8

Arkansas Governor Asa Hutchinson
Arkansas Governor Asa Hutchinson
For the 1st time in 2 decades, a state will execute 8 inmates in 1 month.

Arkansas governor Asa Hutchinson has scheduled 8 executions within 10 days in April. The condemned are among 34 on Arkansas' death row, where legal challenges have suspended capital punishment since 2005.

The men were convicted of murders between 1989 and 1999. Death penalty proponents are frustrated the cases have dragged on. Gov. Hutchinson, a moderate Republican and former federal prosecutor, is determined to reinvigorate executions.

After taking office in 2015, he scheduled executions for 8 inmates, including several set to die this month. A state court halted proceedings because of a lawsuit over provisions shielding sources of lethal injection drugs. Arkansas was ordered to disclose information about its supply chain.

State's attorney general Leslie Rutledge says the inmates have exhausted their appeals. Rutledge requested execution dates after the Supreme Court declined to review a state court ruling affirming Arkansas' protocol.

The 8 inmates are: Bruce Ward and Don Davis (April 17); Stacey Johnson and Ledell Lee (April 20); Jack Jones and Marcel Williams (April 24); and Kenneth Williams and Jason McGehee (April 27).

If all executions proceed, it will be the 1st time since 1997 a state has executed 8 inmates in one month. Texas did so in May and June that year. No jurisdiction has executed 8 in 10 days.

Arkansas' accelerated schedule will deplete its midazolam supply, which expires April 30. Attorneys challenging lethal injection procedures in state court urged the governor to reconsider the protocol. They believe Arkansas' standing in the eyes of the world will diminish.

No state has executed 2 prisoners the same day using midazolam. Oklahoma tried April 29, 2014, but postponed the 2nd procedure after Clayton Lockett's botched execution earlier that night. Lockett's death took an excruciating 43 minutes after midazolam was injected.

Critics claim midazolam is a sedative, not an anesthetic. Thus it is misapplied as a 1st-round injection. Inmates may feel pain from subsequent drugs administered.

Midazolam caused severe suffering in the executions of Dennis McGuire (Ohio), Joseph Wood (Arizona), and Ronald Smith (Alabama). In January 2017, a federal judge barred Ohio from using midazolam, saying it presented substantial, intolerable risk of serious pain. Litigation challenging Arizona's protocol following Wood's execution, halted that state's use of midazolam.

In a New York Times interview, ACLU lawyer, Brian Stull, contends odds for error are greater when multiple executions are jammed together. To uphold prisoners' rights, Stull says, "Each execution is a process that needs to be... handled with care."

The inmates' attorneys concede best-case scenario likely is an alternative form of execution. The 3-drug concoction, they claim, is unconstitutionally cruel.

Executioners may prefer electrocution. According to Jerry Givens, Virginia's former chief executioner, the electric chair required "far less contact with inmates" than did attaching 7 tubes for lethal injection. Over 17 years, Givens executed 62 men - 37 electrocutions, 25 lethal injections.

Gov. Hutchinson regrets executions are so closely slated. "I would love to have those extended over a period of months and years, but that's not the circumstances." He adds, "Families of the victims that have endured this... deserve a conclusion."

This unprecedented spree triggers questions of how rapid-fire executions affect those present. Witnesses include loved ones of the victim and of the condemned. Attending, too, are prison personnel, pastoral counseling clergy, and reporters who function as society's eyes.

Rendering Punishment

Justice may be blind, but those who execute it keep their eyes wide open. Administering society's sanctions can scar those who do.

In an NPR broadcast October 12, 2000, Fred Allen, corrections officer in Huntsville, Texas, reflected how participating in 120 executions affected him. Describing post-traumatic stress disorder-like symptoms, Allen admits, "I can barely talk when I think about it." He quit the prison after 16 years.

"Everybody has a stopping point. Somewhere down the line something will trigger memories..." Allen stops short, not wanting to dredge up flashbacks of inmates' eyes that haunt him still.

Sister Helen Prejean, author of Dead Man Walking, recalls admonitions given witnesses at Louisiana's Angola Prison. Wardens caution against "emotional outbursts." No one wants witnesses celebrating executions. Strong reactions are unwelcome.

Lee Ann Gideon who covered executions for The Huntsville Item told NPR, "You'll never hear another sound like a mother wailing whenever she's watching her son be executed ... No other sound like it. That wail surrounds the room." She adds, "Afterward I felt numb."

Gov. Hutchinson has discussed concerns about stacking executions and potential ill effects on prison staff, with Wendy Kelley, state corrections director. "The answer is it's not any easier to string it over 4 or 5 months than to do it in a measured and separated fashion," he said.

The executions come at an unsettled moment for capital punishment. Nationwide, executions have declined. While many Americans favor the sanction, polling indicates support for capital punishment waning since the mid-90s.

Evolving Community Standards

Sensibilities surrounding executions have evolved, imparting a different significance to capital punishment over time. The trend is to remove ourselves from the violence. First, physically. We no longer throw stones, the communal custom of Biblical days. Then, existentially. Average citizens have no meaningful place in the process.

This reflects growing awareness of others' humanity, making it harder to kill criminals even if we're convinced of guilt. Executions are formal procedures detached from community life. Once public events, executions are now the private preserve of prison personnel.

Eliminating public executions hid their cruelty.

"People that recommend the death penalty - the jury, the judge - if they had to perform the execution... they'd enlighten a different story on giving the death penalty to anyone," says former executioner Givens.

Public executions, banned in New England and the Mid-Atlantic by 1845, were replaced by private, in-prison hangings. Executions were conducted before small audiences of elite citizens, obligated by etiquette to comply with decorum.

Eliminating public executions hid their cruelty. Shifting from public, passionate proceedings to cold, clinical private affairs foreshadowed modern bureaucratic executions.

Executions Behind Prison Walls

Executions are scripted so witnesses might consider them humane. Officials want proceedings to be quick, painless, private. Efficiency and speed curtail emotional clout. Executions can take minutes. Observers barely realize killing has occurred.

Lethal injection seemingly is the least painful technique yet used. This method, however, is not controversy-free. Some anesthesiologists claim injections produce paralysis that masks slow, agonizing suffocation.

In 1983, the Supreme Court [Chaney v. Heckler (718 F. 2d 1174)] commented "known evidence concerning lethal injection... indicates that... drugs pose a substantial threat of torturous pain." When using the prescribed cocktail, the court noted, "even small error in dosages" can turn a prisoner into "a sentient witness to his own slow, lingering asphyxiation."


Contemporary procedures reflect moral void. Former San Quentin chaplain Byron Eschelman, spiritual advisor to condemned inmates, observes: "Society is expert at cold-blooded... businesslike... killing. The death penalty is routine, ritualistic... assembly-line annihilation... serving respectable citizens who pay taxes to get the job done."

Bureaucratic protocol stifles real-life responses. Emotions distract from efficiency. Such reactions draw unwanted attention to the event's violence.

Executioner and condemned are dehumanized. Morally numb, both reciprocate moves in a macabre dance Albert Camus called "administrative murder."

A paradox of capital punishment is that, having attained appreciation of the condemned's humanity, society suppresses awareness to conduct executions. The condemned is first killed by dehumanization. Then the justice system kills and disposes the body. This may be an efficient procedure. But can it be a just one?

Source: Huffington Post, Richard Stack, April 4, 2017. Richard Stack, Contributor Professor, American University; Author, "Dead Wrong: Violence, Vengeance, and the Victims of Capital Punishment."

Poll: About 87 % of readers approve of Arkansas execution plan

A series of executions planned by the State of Arkansas has received overwhelming support from magnoliareporter.com readers.

Beginning Thursday, we invited readers to select 1 of 4 responses to the following question:

"What do you think about the State of Arkansas' plan to execute 8 convicted murderers during a 10-day period in April?"

The results:

These men must suffer the legal consequences of their actions, 119 votes, 48.97 %.

This is good - families are finally receiving long-overdue justice, 92 votes, 37.86 %.

This is not the type of attention Arkansas wants, 23 votes, 9.46 %.

This is abominable - Arkansas should abolish the death penalty, 9 votes, 3.7 %.

Total votes: 243.

magnoliareporter.com online polls are not scientific. They are conducted for the information and entertainment of our readers.

Source: Magnolia Reporter, April 4, 2017

Bloody Arkansas

Arkansas' death chamber
Arkansas' death chamber
It's easy enough to be in favor of the death penalty for abstract reasons. There's revenge, for one, which goes under the alias of justice. There's obedience to the letter of the law rather than its spirit. There are at least as many reasons to favor the death penalty in legalistic debate as there are prisoners waiting to be lined up and killed, all of whom have names, families, friends and a grave waiting to receive their lifeless bodies once they're put to death:

--Don Davis and Bruce Earl Ward, whose executions have been set for April 17.

--Ledelle Lee and Stacey Johnson, who are due to meet their maker 3 days later.

--Marcell Williams and Jack Jones Jr., who now have till April 24 to live, at least according to the state's crowded schedule.

--Jason McGehee and Kenneth Williams, set for execution on the 27th of what the poet called the cruelest month, mixing memory and desire. Not to mention old-fashioned blood lust. Just as the earth returns to life, it is to receive their bodies as dust returns to dust.

What a cruel fate: to awaken each morning from troubled sleep, if the condemned can get any rest at all, to know that one's days are numbered -- not in the general sense but to exact time and place. Like sunrise on death row of the state's maximum-security wing at Varner, Ark., United States of America, in the sight of God, may He have mercy on their souls and on all of us in whose name this terrible deed is to be done.

Long ago and in a land far away in time and place, an ancient legal code decreed the death penalty for heinous crimes -- but only in the abstract. And any session of the court that dared carry it out would be assigned the damning name of Bloody Sanhedrin for all time. How little progress our so-called civilization has made since those ancient times, which might look quite enlightened when compared to ours.

Even finding witnesses to such a macabre sight has turned out to be a major challenge. The director of this state's department of correction and/or execution, Wendy Kelley, was reduced to appealing to a Rotary Club in Little Rock in her search for qualified witnesses: "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." And serious this role is -- deathly serious.

One volunteer for this role comes immediately to mischievous mind: the state's governor, the Hon. Asa Hutchinson, for his administration has put all those executions on the official calendar; wouldn't he like to be in attendance when his orders are executed, literally?

Department of Correction spokesman Solomon Graves doesn't seem to have a current account of any witnesses that have stepped forward, but he's beating the bushes for them. So hurry, hurry, hurry and sign up for the big show. No waiting! Immediate seating is available! If you've got the stomach for it.

It won't be easy to find volunteers for this grisly job, says Bill Booker, acting president of this Rotary Club. "What I suspect," he says, "is that some people might support the death penalty, but when it comes to witnessing something like that, it's a different story. 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. ... At this point in my life, I don't know if I'd want to risk being traumatized by it. That doesn't mean that I oppose the death penalty." It's watching it being carried out that he'd like to avoid, though he's a funeral director by profession, on familiar terms with the angel of death. He recalls watching a young man die at the scene of a traffic accident years ago, and that was bad enough.

One member of this Rotary Club, one Charlotte Gadberry by name, says she has no interest in volunteering as a witness for the execution. "I can't imagine," she says, that Director Kelley "will get a lot of volunteers. 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." There is. It's called life imprisonment without parole. Who knows, what with redemption being eternal, it may be a good thing for both the condemned and the conscience of the society that has condemned him.

Source: townhall.com, April 4, 2017

Arkansas is set to start executing 8 people the day after Easter

Arkansas is set to execute 8 people over a stunning pace of 11 days.

Why the rush? State officials discovered that the lethal injection drugs will expire soon.

As Christians around the world remember the most famous execution in history and one of the most holy of Christian days, Arkansas will be preparing for the bloodiest week of executions in the state's history.

And Arkansas consistently ranks at the top of the most religious states in America, sitting comfortably in the middle of "the Bible Belt." Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson often speaks of his faith, and on Sundays he often posts some of his favorite Bible verses on Twitter.

8 executions in 10 days ...

Beginning the day after Easter ...

At the heart of Christianity is a savior executed by the state. How we understand what happened on the cross 2,000 years ago shapes how we understand capital punishment today.

Over the past 3 decades, 86 % of executions have taken place in the Bible Belt (perhaps we should rename it "the death belt"?), according to author Dale Recinella. White Christians are the most supportive of the death penalty: Clear majorities of white evangelical Protestants, white mainline Protestants and white Catholics favor the death penalty, according to a 2015 Pew Research survey. By contrast, 58 % of black Protestants oppose the death penalty.

What Jesus did on the cross was make a spectacle of death. He exposed the violence of the state and the violence of the human heart, not to celebrate death, but to triumph over it. He died with grace on his lips, forgiving the very people who were killing him, and all of us whose sins helped land him there. Jesus' death broke the cycle of violence.

As theologian James Cone put it, "The cross was God's critique of power ... snatching victory out of defeat." He countered the power of death with the power of grace. In the face of unimaginable evil, grace gets the last word.

Jesus was the sacrifice to end all sacrifices. He stole the show with love.

Beyond bunnies, egg hunts and chocolate, Easter is about how Jesus died to save us from death. While we were still sinners, Christ died for us. In his own words, Christ came "not for the healthy but for the sick" (Mark 2:17). We have a God who promises that mercy triumphs over judgment (James 2:1) and a God who says, "I desire mercy not sacrifice" (Hosea 6:6).

And what about those people facing death row? The Bible promises, "Where sin abounds, grace abounds all the more" (Romans 5:20). The Bible is filled with murderers who were given a 2nd chance including Moses, David and Saul of Tarsus. The Bible - a love story with the climax of Easter - would be much shorter without grace.

Arkansas, as religious as it may be, will miss the point of Easter if it does not stop the executions.

God gave us grace when we didn't deserve grace, and we disgrace the cross every time we call for the execution of another person. We undermine the redemptive work of Jesus on the cross and rob our fellow sinners of the possibilities of redemption. How can we, who have been extended grace, now call for the death of another person?

Death is the disease, not the cure. When we kill those who kill to show that killing is wrong, we legitimize the very evil we hope to rid the world of, the evil that sent Jesus to the cross.

Organizers are planning prayer vigils and worship services outside the governor's mansion next week, culminating with a Good Friday vigil at the state capitol. And I've heard from pastors around the country who will be celebrating what Jesus did on the cross, as well as calling for an end to the death penalty, in the name of the executed and risen Christ.

I pray Hutchison will be moved deep in his heart with compassion and mercy - the stuff Easter is made of - and stand on the side of life. As I scrolled through the governor's Twitter feed, I read verse after verse from the Old Testament and some from the New Testament Epistles, but didn't see one quote from the Gospels. It was Jesus who halted an execution centuries ago, telling the armed men ready to stone a woman: "Let the one who is without sin cast the first stone."

Any pro-death-penalty Christian has the nagging problem of Jesus to deal with, and I pray Jesus will keep the governor up at night. Perhaps he'll consider posting this tweet on Easter Sunday: "Blessed are the merciful for they will be shown mercy" (Matthew 5:7)".

That would truly be Easter in Arkansas.

Source: The Washington Post, Shane Claiborne, April 4, 2017. Shane Claiborne is a speaker and author of many books, including "Executing Grace."

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