JOHN BRUMMETT: Of itch and irony

Editor's note: This is a revised version of a column first appearing online-only Tuesday.

It was a night rich with itch and irony.

I've never beheld such a powerful official hankering to kill and kill now as was evident Monday night in the political leadership of Arkansas.

Not to name names, but ... Gov. Asa Hutchinson and Attorney General Leslie Rutledge.

The state had weathered a wild flurry of late-afternoon court decisions that shook out this way: Instead of killing seven death row inmates in 11 days starting Monday night, the state would be allowed to kill five death row inmates over a week starting Thursday night.

That was because the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals had overturned a temporary stay of execution in all seven cases that U.S. District Judge Kristine Baker had issued Saturday. She had cited questions about the appropriateness of the drugs to be used. The 8th Circuit said the drugs were probably all right.

But, minutes before that, and to my and others' surprise, the Arkansas Supreme Court had voted 4-to-3 to stay the executions of two of those seven--the two, in fact, just so happening to be scheduled for the first round of killing in two or three hours.

The decisive issue for the prevailing four members of the Arkansas Supreme Court--Chief Justice Dan Kemp and Associate Justices Courtney Goodson, Jo Hart and Robin Wynne--was that one of the two men scheduled for killing had a borderline low IQ and the other had issues of mental disease.

More to the point, it turns out that the U.S. Supreme Court has accepted and soon will hear arguments on a death-penalty appeal from Alabama. And that appeal contends that indigent death row inmates in that state who had raised mental-competence issues or mental health ones did not receive sufficient legal and physician advocacy for those arguments.

The four Arkansas justices on the prevailing side essentially said they wanted to let these two Arkansas fellows live for a while longer rather than kill them right away and risk having the U.S. Supreme Court rule imminently in a way that might be helpful to them--or have been helpful to them, as it were.

Attorney General Rutledge promptly petitioned the U.S. Supreme Court for emergency permission to kill before midnight one of the two, Donald Davis, the one with a low IQ, but not the other, whose case was more detailed.

Then Governor Hutchinson put out a written statement in which he seemed so irritated by the postponement of his scheduled Monday-night activity that his subjects and verbs were in a jumble.

But grammar was a secondary problem.

A governor declaring himself frustrated that he couldn't start killing until Thursday defied the somber reserve that any governor and sensitive man ought to reflect in his official and personal manner on such an occasion.

Essentially, the state's position as advanced Monday night by Hutchinson and Rutledge was that, if the state missed Monday night's chance to kill Donald Davis, it might never get to kill him, depending on what the U.S. Supreme Court might subsequently rule about fairness for the mentally challenged in the Alabama appeal.

That assuredly represents an itch to kill. To counter that waiting two decades for Davis' killing is no itch, but an overlong affront to the victims' families, is to miss the point.

The matter at hand was that, after those decades, the state was pleading for permission from the nation's highest court to get started Monday on a killing spree that the courts were telling it to wait three days to start.

The death penalty advocate's mantra is that only by killing a killer can the state condemn killing. It's that only an execution can give closure to the loved ones of the victim.

Essentially, it's that justice is vengeance. But it isn't. Vengeance is passionate. Justice is rational. One of the objectives of justice is dispassion.

The death penalty advocate's mantra also is that a jury's decision to impose death must be honored. That is quite different from the conservative mantra that a jury's decision to award damages in a civil lawsuit should not be honored if the damages are high.

Juries are always right ... unless they aren't. You see.

Speaking of irony, note that Rutledge and Hutchinson, avowed states'-rights supporters, asked the U.S. Supreme Court to take authority over an Arkansas matter from the highest Arkansas court.

As the clock moved past 9 p.m. Monday with no word from the U.S. Supreme Court, state prison people fed Davis his chosen last meal ... in case it was.

It wasn't. A few minutes before midnight, the U.S. Supreme Court turned down Hutchinson and Rutledge.

There would be no killing by the state of Arkansas until Thursday, no matter how strong the state's hankering to kill quicker.


John Brummett, whose column appears regularly in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, was inducted into the Arkansas Writers' Hall of Fame in 2014. Email him at jbrummett@arkansasonline.com. Read his @johnbrummett Twitter feed.

Editorial on 04/20/2017

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