by Jeannie Nuss
Posted 2/15/2013 07:49 am
Updated 2 years ago
LITTLE ROCK - Arkansas is one step closer to resuming executions after a legislative panel on Thursday approved a proposal to rewrite a lethal injection law that the state's top court struck down last year.
The new measure sailed through the House Judiciary Committee, despite fears that it fails to address issues that led the Arkansas Supreme Court to side with a group of death row inmates and overturn the state's 2009 execution law. In June, the court deemed it unconstitutional, saying the Legislature had given the Department of Correction "unfettered discretion" to figure out the protocol and procedures for executions, including the chemicals to be used.
The new proposal says correction officials are to carry out death sentences using a class of drug known as a barbiturate, but it doesn't specify which one. The Department of Correction would still have the discretion to choose.
"Don't you think that brings about the possibility of other constitutional challenges as well?" Rep. John Walker, D-Little Rock, asked during Thursday's committee meeting.
Attorney General Dustin McDaniel acknowledged the likelihood of continuing legal challenges, but he said the measure addresses the Supreme Court's concerns.
"We're going to be sued no matter what bill we pass," McDaniel said.
Arkansas, which has 37 men on death row and no pending executions, is not alone in dealing with lethal injection issues. Other death penalty states have changed the chemicals they use, in part because of a shortage of such drugs.
And despite concerns about a lack of specificity in the new lethal injection proposal, some say legislators can't spell out too much. If the law were to list a drug that became unavailable in between legislative sessions, corrections officials fear they would have to wait for the next session for the law to be changed.
The current proposal, much like the 2009 law, would allow the state to revert to electrocution in certain cases, though that option doesn't seem likely. An Arkansas history museum had the state's two electric chairs in storage as of last year.
The measure heads to the full House for a vote next week. Gov. Mike Beebe has said he will sign the bill if it reaches his desk, despite his own reservations about the death penalty.
If the proposal becomes law, Arkansas could resume capital punishment, although additional litigation would likely further delay the state from carrying out its first execution since 2005.
Richard Dieter, the executive director of the Washington-based Death Penalty Information Center, said challenges likely won't focus so much on the theoretical, but on the details of putting someone to death.
"I think the challenge will be: We want more details about exactly which drug is going to be used," Dieter said.
Department of Correction spokeswoman Dina Tyler said the agency has not decided which drug it would likely use in lethal injections, but she said the department will disclose the drug and dosage.
Still, Rita Sklar, the executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union, asked why the proposal would keep parts of the procedure in the dark, exempt from the state's public records laws.
"We just want to know, if you're going to kill somebody in the name of the people, how you're going to do it," Sklar said.
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