Arkansas can continue to sentence killers to death, but can’t execute them, thanks to a 5-2 state Supreme Court ruling Friday that declared the Arkansas Method of Execution Act was unconstitutional.
Executions haven’t been happening anyway. Arkansas hasn’t carried out a death sentence since 2005, when Eric Randall Nance paid the ultimate penalty for murdering an 18-year-old Malvern cheerleader in October 1993. An article in the state newspaper said Nance had come upon Julie Heath standing beside her broken-down car alongside U.S. 270.
He stabbed her in the throat with a box cutter. The state was kinder to him, using a lethal injection of sodium pentathol.
Since then the convicted killers on Arkansas’ Death Row, with the help of their lawyers, have managed to delay justice.
Their latest success came in a lawsuit filed jointly by 10 killers against the Arkansas Department of Correction challenging a 2009 law that had been passed by the General Assembly in an attempt to correct deficiencies cited in a previous lawsuit over the lethal injection process.
Five members of the court agreed that in the 2009 law the Legislature "abdicated its responsibility" by giving the Department of Correction too much discretion to decide how to carry out lethal injections, thus violating the constitutional doctrine of separation of powers.
The law specifies that the death sentence is to be carried out by lethal injection of "one or more chemicals, as determined in kind and amount in the discretion of the director of the Department of Correction." The 10 killers offered a litany of other charges, just in case something else worked better, but that’s the one the court found most compelling.
One of the killers’ lawyer, Jeff Rosenzweig of Little Rock, told a reporter that there was nothing in the law to prevent the director "from using rat poison or Drano or whatever to do an execution."
He knows that’s a ludicrous suggestion because the U.S. Supreme Court would quickly rule rat poison to be "cruel and unusual." Perhaps the state should go back to using the electric chair instead of messing with drugs, which seem to offer all sorts of avenues for delay.
In a well-reasoned dissent, Associate Justice Karen R. Baker pointed out that the "separation of powers" argument had previously been rejected in similar death penalty challenges in Texas, Delaware, Idaho and Florida, all of which had assigned responsibility for determining the procedures to the relevant administrative agency.
Separation of powers in American government is intended to prevent one branch from usurping the powers of another by establishing a series of checks and balances. There cannot and should not be a wall between the three branches. The state Supreme Court, for example, did not consider it a violation when ordering the Legislature to change its method of financing public schools.
While the majority opinion written by Associate Justice Jim Gunter specifically said the court was not suggesting "what modifications to the statute would pass constitutional muster," the decision did just that. The Legislature clearly must specify what drugs will be used to carry out lethal injections administered to convicted killers.
Lest we forget, the guilt of these 10 men was not contested. Following, from court records and news reports, are their crimes.
• Jack Harold Jones Jr. in 1995 raped and murdered a Bald Knob bookkeeper, Mary Phillips, and beat her 11-year-old daughter so severely that police first thought she was dead.
• Jason Farrell McGehee was one of three men who kidnapped, tortured, beat, strangled and burned John Melbourne to death in 1996 after accusing the 15-year-old of snitching on them for stealing.
• Bruce Earl Ward in 1989 attempted to rape and then strangled an 18-year-old Little Rock convenience store clerk, Rebecca Lynn Doss. He previously had been convicted of voluntary manslaughter for the 1977 strangulation of a woman in Pennsylvania.
• Marcel Williams was convicted in the 1994 rape and murder of Stacy Errickson, 22, after kidnapping her from a Jacksonville convenience store, where the mother of two had stopped to get gas.
• Frank Williams Jr., fired by Clyde Spence in 1992 from a farm job , came back and killed Spence.
• Terrick T. Nooner, while robbing a Little Rock laundromat in 1993, shot to death a college student, Scot Stobaugh, 23.
• Kenneth Williams was convicted in 1999 of murdering a Lincoln County farmer, Cecil Boren, 57, after Williams escaped from the Cummins Unit prison. In 1998 he had kidnapped a couple from a restaurant where they had stopped for lunch after church. He robbed and shot both of them. Dominique Hurd, 19, a University of Arkansas-Pine Bluff cheerleader, died; her boyfriend survived.
• Don W. Davis was sentenced to death for the 1990 execution-style slaying of Jane Daniel, 62, of Rogers. He also stole various items, including jewelry, from her home and was first scheduled for execution in 1999.
• Alvin Bernal Jackson, already in prison for the 1990 murder of Charles Colclasure and attempted killing of two other people, got the death penalty after stabbing prison guard Scott Grimes to death with a homemade knife in 1995.
• Stacy Eugene Johnson in 1993 stripped, beat, strangled and slit the throat of Carol Jean Health, 26, at her De Queen apartment while her 6-year-old daughter and 2-year-old son hid in a closet.
The Supreme Court justices need to figure out how to carry out the responsibilities of the judicial branch and administer justice to these men.
Roy Ockert is editor emeritus of The Jonesboro Sun. He may be reached by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.