Death penalty repeal clears Senate Committee | Arkansas Blog

Death penalty repeal clears Senate Committee

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'TIME TO RECONSIDER'" Sen. David Burnett, who as a judge imposed the death sentence, said the penalty is broken and should be repealed. - BRIAN CHILSON
  • Brian Chilson
  • 'TIME TO RECONSIDER'" Sen. David Burnett, who as a judge imposed the death sentence, said the penalty is broken and should be repealed.

The Senate Judiciary Committee has endorsed Sen. David Burnett's bill to repeal the death penalty.

It was approved on a voice vote, with no audible "nays." The Committee has four Democrats and four Republicans.

Burnett said he'd prosecuted five death cases and sat as a judge on five more. He did not mention that one of those was the West Memphis Three case, in which Damien Echols was sentenced to death. Echols and two co-defendants eventually were released from prison in a plea deal after many questions were raised about their guilt. Burnett did not take part in the completion of the case.

Burnett said the death penalty doesn't do anything to prevent murder or capital crime. "I think the time has come for us to reconsider the death penalty as a form of punishment."

Three prosecutors — Cody Hiland, Tom Tatum and Dan Shue — opposed the bill. They said it was a deterrent to capital crime and helped prosecutors as a bargaining chip to get guilty pleas.

"We value life," said Hiland, in calling for preservation of the death penalty. "That's what's needed. There's not a blood lust here." If it is taken off the table, prosecutors said defendants would have no incentive to plead guilty and cause expensive trials.

Sen. Joyce Elliott, a committee member, commented: "We do monstrous things to respond to a monstrous thing." She said the U.S. was in bad company with countries that still retained the death penalty, including Iran.

Burnett said the death penalty, because of lack of enforcement, had become meaningless. "It's broken. It doesn't work because you have no certainty."

When a prosecutor said the murder had gone down sharply in Texas, which has a death penalty, Burnett replied: "I don't give a damn about the whole state of Texas." Nobody mentioned it, but violent crime has been dropping generally, including in states without the death penalty.

Jeff Rosenzweig, a lawyer for Death Row inmates, said the death penalty is irreversible. "The courts are a human system where people make mistakes. It is a broken system and there's no way to fix it that is fair."

Greg Parrish, director of the Arkansas Public Defenders Commission, said the cost of the death defenses is "extraordinary" and requires two certified attorneys who are highly paid. He said a minimum defense cost is $100,000 in Arkansas. He said $5 million has been spent so far on defense of the accused in the Aurora, Col., theater shooting.

The favorable composition of the committee helped this bill today. It seems unlikely that a Republican-controlled Senate or House would approve repeal of the death penalty, even though it has been 10 years since it was last carried out in Arkansas and it's uncertain when it can be resumed because of questions over use of drugs in the process and lawsuits over procedure.

Burnett's bill, SB  298, would make sentencing options for a capital crime life in prison or life in prison without parole. 

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