Committee hears testimony on ending the death penalty; declines to spare mentally ill | Arkansas Blog

Committee hears testimony on ending the death penalty; declines to spare mentally ill

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CONFERRING: Rep. Vivian Flowers (right) conferes with Fluronda Brasfield, director of the Arkansas Coalition Aginst the Death Penalty.
  • CONFERRING: Rep. Vivian Flowers (right) conferes with Fluronda Brasfield, director of the Arkansas Coalition Aginst the Death Penalty.

Rep. Vivian Flower
s' bill to abolish the death penalty in Arkansas was heard in the House Judiciary Committee this morning, but no vote was taken because of a question about wording

Religious and practical objections — execution of innocents, time, cost, disproportionate sentencing for the poor and minorities — were raised in testimony to substitute a life sentence as the only option for a capital crime conviction.

Flowers acknowledged resistance to the change. But she asked for a vote to send the bill to the floor for a fuller discussion. Ultimately, she deferred a vote because of a possible error in drafting, that said either a life sentence or a life sentence without parole was a possibility for a capital crime. A witness for Flowers said there was no practical difference between the two in Arkansas law — only a gubernatorial commutation can lead to release in either case. But the question was enough to delay consideration.

Flowers also offered testimony in support of a bill to prevent execution of people with a serious mental illness. Testimony included that from a law professor of cases where people had been medicated to make someone mentally competent to be executed. A lawyer is left with the option of keeping an inmate psychotic to keep them alive, Tom Sullivan said. He said state courts have differed on the issue. Some states have ruled that it was unconstitutional to medicate someone to allow execution. Arkansas courts have said otherwise.

Flowers said her bills provided more immediate, final resolution for victims' families than the death penalty provides.

She also argued that if an inmate is too ill to be housed with other inmates they might be too ill to be executed.

Prosecutors opposed the bill. They said it was so broad it would effectively eliminate the death penalty and could apply retroactively to people on Death Row now.

Supporters included a former state legislator, lawyer Herb Rule, Rick Smith, a psychiatrist at UAMS, and Karen DiPippa, speaking for the Catholic Diocese of Little Rock.

Rep. Rebecca Petty, whose 12-year-old daughter was victim of a murder, asked Rule whether defendants deserved grave punishment. He said they did and he said he viewed life without parole as a worse penalty than a quick execution.

Rep. Laurie Rushing, who also referenced the death of a daughter (not in a murder case, as incorrectly related originally), reminded the committee of the loss in opposing the bill.

The bill got a motion for do-pass, but was defeated overwhelmingly in the voice vote.

Rep. Charles Blake also presented a bill on stiffening the requirement for a jury to return a death sentence so as to avoid potential for conviction of innocent people. His bill requires proof of each underlying element of a crime "beyond any doubt." This doesn't affect the conviction standard, only the standard of proof in sentencing. Prosecutors said it would create an "impossible" standard. No other state has such a provision. His bill also failed on a voice vote.

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