LITTLE ROCK, Ark. — Even though legal options have run out, Catholics in Arkansas are still pushing back against a wave of eight executions set to start on Easter Monday, April 17.
“Though guilty of heinous crimes, these men nevertheless retain the God-given dignity of any human life, which must be respected and defended from conception to natural death,” wrote Bishop Anthony Taylor of Little Rock in a March 1 letter to Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson against the planned executions.
Beginning next week, the state of Arkansas will execute eight men in the span of 10 days.
Their names and scheduled execution dates are Don Davis and Bruce Earl Ward (April 17); Ledelle Lee and Stacey Johnson (April 20), Marcel Williams and Jack Jones Jr. (April 24); and Jason McGehee and Kenneth Williams (April 27).
No death-row inmate has been executed in Arkansas since 2005. There are 34 death-row inmates in the state.
The executions were originally scheduled in October 2015, after the Arkansas Legislature passed a law legalizing the anonymity of the sources of a three-drug cocktail of lethal injections that sedates, paralyzes and stops the heart of the person upon whom it is used. The men’s attorney filed a lawsuit alleging that concealing the drugs’ sources could obfuscate whether or not the inmates had been subjected to cruel and unusual punishment. After a stay was granted and a county court ruled the law unconstitutional, the Arkansas Supreme Court ruled in favor of the law. The U.S. Supreme Court opted not to hear the case.
Hutchinson then rescheduled the executions. According to the Arkansas Catholic, the state has spent $24,226.40 on the drugs used in the scheduled executions.
The eight executions are taking place before the state’s supply of midazolam, a sedative used in the execution process, expires.
The state’s supply of potassium chloride, used to stop the heart, expired Jan. 1, 2017. However, Hutchinson told the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette in a Feb. 28 article that he was confident the state could procure more potassium chloride in time for the executions.
The state also permits the use of a single-drug method of execution.
Catholic teaching has long permitted the state’s use of capital punishment as an act of justice and to keep a community safe from a dangerous wrongdoer, given that the gravity of the crime merits such a harsh response and that the guilt of the inmate is certain.
While this teaching has not changed, writings by St. John Paul II and his successors have critiqued the practice’s use in the modern era. In his 1995 encyclical Evangelium Vitae (The Value and Inviolability of Human Life), Pope St. John Paul II wrote, “If bloodless means are sufficient to defend human lives against an aggressor and to protect public order and the safety of persons, public authority must limit itself to such means.”
Bishop Taylor referenced these papal critiques of the death penalty in his plea that the state of Arkansas halt the executions.
“Since the penal system of our state is well equipped to keep them incarcerated for the rest of their lives (and thus protect society), we should limit ourselves to non-lethal means — hence this appeal to you,” the bishop argued.
The bishop also pointed out some practical arguments against the death penalty’s use in the state, including that the punishment is frequently applied inconsistently, even among similar crimes; that the death penalty is more costly than other sentences; and that more than 139 death-row inmates from 36 states have been exonerated since 1973, after evidence showed their innocence.
He also pointed out that in an overwhelming majority of death-row cases no DNA evidence exists to ensure the inmates’ guilt and the inmates are too poor to afford their own attorneys.
Bishop Taylor recognized Hutchinson’s duty to execute the state’s laws, including the death penalty, but also reminded him that he is also subject to a “higher law, the divine law.”
“As governor you have the power to commute these sentences to life without possibility of parole, and so I appeal to you to do so — and not only out of concern for these eight men, but also out of concern for the damage that the death penalty does to all of us as a society,” the bishop wrote.
While the bishop’s letter has not stopped the upcoming executions, Catholics in the state are not halting their protests or prayers.
The Benedictine Sisters of the St. Scholastica Monastery will hold a novena for the prisoners who will be executed and their clemency and are inviting Catholics to join them by coming to pray daily April 9-17 at the monastery’s cemetery.
In addition, on Good Friday, a non-partisan ecumenical group, the Arkansas Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty, will host a rally in front of the Arkansas State Capitol against the mass executions.