From the Arkansas Statehouse...

Death-penalty bill stalls.

In Courts, Death on 25 March 2009 at 12:59 pm

Rep. Bobby Pierce’s bill to align state death-penalty protocols with federally sanctioned procedures failed to get out of the Senate Judiciary Committee this morning in the face of opposition to the bill’s Freedom of Information Act exemptions. Opponents complained that the legislation would allow the Department of Corrections to conceal information about the types of drugs used to execute prisoners.

The bill is a direct reaction to the Frank Williams case. Williams is a death-row inmate who has been fighting his execution in court. Though Gov. Beebe has signed a death warrant for Williams, the execution was stayed last September by Pulaski County Circuit Judge Tim Fox. Judge Fox ruled that the Department of Corrections could not kill Williams unless it subjected recently adopted execution protocols to public input. (States moved to change their lethal-injection protocols last year after a U.S. Supreme Court ruling on the issue.)

Rep. Pierce’s bill would clear that hurdle by exempting the execution protocols from the Arkansas Administrative Procedure Act. More controversial, however, were provisions of the bill that would put the new protocols in statute and forbid the public from learning about how inmates are put to death.

Jeff Rosenzweig of the Arkansas Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers argued that the bill was overly permissive in the types of lethal injection it allows. Though the Supreme Court approved a specific drug cocktail for executions last year, the language of Rep. Pierce’s bill would permit an irresponsible Corrections director to go beyond that cocktail and use a substance such as rat poison, Rosenzweig said.

Rosenzweig also said the bill would prevent the press and the general public from getting information about executions. Department of Corrections Director Larry Norris did not deny the charge. He said certain information about executions, such as the number of guards on duty, needs to be secure. He added that the inmate and his lawyer are always told how the execution will proceed and what drugs will be used.

Though some members of the committee approved of the FOI exemptions — “Why in the world would you care what drugs they use?” asked Sen. Ruth Whitaker — enough were concerned to force Rep. Pierce to pull the bill down.

(Read on for reaction from supporters and prospects for the bill’s future.)

Deputy Attorney General Justin Allen, who spoke in favor of the bill, said afterward that the legislation was necessary as long as the death penalty remains legal in Arkansas. If it is not passed, he said, the state will have a much harder time convincing Arkansas courts to allow executions to proceed.

Allen dismissed Rosenzweig’s rat-poison argument as “far-fetched.” He said the 8th Amendment protects inmates from such a method, and that any director using such an injection would be immediately prosecuted.

However, Allen said the bill writers might be willing to concede arguments about the FOI and amend the bill. He said it would remain up to Corrections Director Norris whether to allow the general public access to execution information. The bill writers may choose to explicitly provide the information only to inmates and their lawyers.

Whatever the amendment looks like, the bill will almost certainly come before committee again later in the session.

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