In Arkansas, a rush to kill

The Observer editorial board

The Department of Correction's Cummins Unit prison in Varner, Ark., houses the seven prisoners scheduled to die at the prison by the end of the month.
The Department of Correction's Cummins Unit prison in Varner, Ark., houses the seven prisoners scheduled to die at the prison by the end of the month. AP

The bankruptcy of the death penalty is on full display in Arkansas this week.

State officials there are rushing to execute seven men within 10 days. This potential flurry of state-ordered killings isn’t happening because there’s a significant chance the seven men pose any sort of danger in prison, or that they are on the verge of escaping and committing violence throughout the land.

The reason Arkansas planned to go on a binge of unnecessary killings? The drug it uses in executions is about to expire and the state may not be able to legally buy more.

In 21st century America, a man’s fate could be determined by the “If used by” date stamped on the side of a bottle. Courts have stepped in and delayed the state’s plans, which were to have been implemented beginning this past Monday. That Arkansas tried to do this at all, as disturbing as the plan was, has provided the nation an invaluable gift by making plain the immorality of the death penalty.

State-ordered executions are not an effective deterrent of potential crime. They don’t save lives on some undetermined future date by being carried out today.

A state-ordered execution is not a weapon of last resort – because the state has other options. A life spent in prison, whether in solitary confinement or the general population, is stiff punishment for any crime.

In other words, there is no compelling reason to spend years, or decades, and millions of taxpayer dollars to end a man’s life as punishment for his having ended another’s.

Not only are the killings unnecessary and ineffective, they represent the final word in a system long known to be fatally flawed. There are no do-overs. A study in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences found that at least four percent of the people sentenced to death have been innocent. But that’s not the only reason the death penalty is bankrupt.

The system will never be about true justice or equality as long as men and women are more likely to end up on death row based upon the color of their skin, the race of their victim and the size of their bank account than their guilt or innocence. Those are problems endemic throughout the criminal justice system but particularly egregious on death row, given the finality of an execution.

In the case of the Arkansas seven, a Harvard report noted several of the men have serious mental health problems and had inadequate representation at trial. One of the men, Don Davis, believes he is about to go on a “special mission as an evangelist” instead of being tied down and having poisons pushed into his veins.

Arkansas’s decision to rush executions on the flimsy basis of expiring drugs seems absurd in the extreme. The truth is, though, that this country has long committed to killing people for no good reason. Arkansas is not an anomaly.