Senate panel endorses death penalty bill


LITTLE ROCK — The Senate Judiciary Committee on Wednesday endorsed a bill that details the procedures the state Department of Correction is to use to put a condemned prisoner to death.

Attorney General Dustin McDaniel testified for Senate Bill 237 by Sen. Bart Hester, R-Cave Springs, before the panel recommended unanimously that the measure go to the Senate.

“I am not here to debate the merits of the death penalty one way or the other,” McDaniel said. “My job is to carry out those sentences and assist the state in carrying out those sentences in a constitutional manner.”

Thirty-seven inmates are on death row, eight of which have exhausted all appeals and are awaiting execution, the attorney general said.

Executions in Arkansas have been on hold since the state Supreme Court last year struck down the state’s death penalty law, saying a provision that gave the state prison director authority to select the drugs used in the execution was unconstitutional. The high court said the Legislature must set the type of drugs used in the process and the quantity.

“The court raised concerns about separation of powers and we believe that’s been remedied simply by some clearer language and clarification of the process,” McDaniel told the committee Wednesday.

Earlier in the legislative session, Hester filed SB 73 to address the Supreme Court court ruling but the attorney general’s office said it had some concerns about the proposal and was working on one of its own. Hester filed the new bill this week and said the attorney general’s office and Department of Correction helped draft it.

“The (attorney general’s office) has got to defend it and the Department of Correction has to carry it out, so we’re all on board,” Hester told lawmakers Wednesday.

In response to committee questioning, McDaniel said he expects attorneys for the death row inmates to file additional lawsuits after SB 237 is adopted by the Legislature.

“The court said we had to pass something and I would suspect that we will be facing litigation again just as soon as this statute becomes law because we’re always going to be facing litigation in the world of capital punishment,” he said. “We believe that the primary concerns that were raised before were regarding the range of authority on selection of chemicals. Your changing of the drug protocol and codification of department procedures are the two primary changes in the bill.”

McDaniel said the high court deliberately declined to say what the state had to do to meet constitutional muster.

“So we’ll find out what’s left to fix probably in litigation, but we have attempted to anticipate any concerns that could be raised,” he said.