by Max Brantley
Death Penalty Study and Moratorium Campaign July 23, 2008
LITTLE ROCK – Attorneys for the first inmate scheduled to be executed in Arkansas in four three years have petitioned for a reduction in his sentence to life imprisonment without parole.
Governor Mike Beebe, in the first death warrant he has signed since taking office 19 months ago, directed on June 20 that Frank Williams, Jr. be put to death by lethal injection on September 9.
The state’s effort to execute Williams and his lawyers’ attempts to spare him come amid new research indicating Arkansans have profound misgivings about capital punishment– its fairness, its expense and, notably, the strong possibility that innocent persons can and have been put to death.
Although 70 percent of Arkansans questioned in a scientific public opinion survey initially endorsed the death penalty, their support shrank dramatically – and their ambivalence soared – when provided with information about the criminal justice system’s flaws and when offered options to execution.
The Kitchens Group of Maitland, Florida questioned 500 registered Arkansas voters by telephone in late February in behalf of the Arkansas Campaign for a Moratorium on the Death Penalty. The survey has a margin of error of plus or minus 4% with a 95% confidence level.
The Kitchens pollsters discovered that although strong majorities believe the death penalty is both just and a deterrent to future homicides, support for capital punishment shrivels to less than half among those questioned when they are informed that 126 individuals awaiting execution have been proved innocent in only the last 12 years. (Since the research was done, there have been three more individuals proven innocent and released.)
Similarly, almost 40 percent of death penalty advocates said they were less likely to endorse capital punishment when told that no reputable study had established that executions have a deterrent effect.
Nowhere did Arkansans demonstrate significant – if unstated – doubts about the death penalty, however, than when questioned about its equity:
-- Eighty-three percent (83%) agreed that affluent defendants are less likely to be put to death;
-- Seventy percent (70%) believe that the legal system treats the affluent better than the poor;
-- Fifty-nine percent (59%) believe that poor defendants are more likely to be put to death than those with significant assets;
-- Fifty-one percent (51%) concur than blacks accused of killing whites are more likely to be executed than whites accused of killing blacks.
Among several other notable findings, fully two-thirds of the Arkansans questioned said they support creation of a blue-ribbon commission to study capital punishment – its fairness, its costs and its impact on victims’ families.
Such a study is not likely to come before Williams faces the executioner’s needle. Williams – poor and black – is also of limited intelligence, say his attorneys, who have filed a 41-page brief in his behalf. Although they do not dispute that their client in fact killed his former employer, they note that Williams and the four other men awaiting execution for crimes committed in the same judicial district are all black, and that all were convicted of killing white men. There are no whites on Death Row from the same district who have been charged with killing blacks.
*Currently the number of prisoners released from death row is 129.