Many Arkansans are reflecting on the values of justice and mercy. On this date one year ago, the State of Arkansas began a historic series of executions.
Executions were scheduled for eight men between April 17-27, 2017. One, Jason McGehee, received clemency from Gov. Asa Hutchinson, three were granted stays by the courts, and four were executed.
The first of the men to be executed was Ledell Lee.
“We’ve been going through this since last year,” his sister, Patricia Young, said Tuesday. “And it has not been a easy process for us. And we’re trying to cope with it as best we can, but it’s very hard.”
Young joined a couple dozen people for a vigil outside the gates of the Governor’s Mansion Tuesday evening. The event was organized by the Arkansas Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty, which staged similar protests several times in April 2017.
“The State of Arkansas, they need to abolish the death penalty,” Young said. “Because you’re not helping nobody in this situation.”
The most visible attendee at the vigil was Pulaski County District Judge Wendell Griffen. Griffen brought a cot, had someone tie him to it with a rope, and laid silently for an hour. He wore a button that said, “end the death penalty,” along with an identification badge and a hat he placed on his lap.
A similar demonstration during an anti-death penalty rally last year led the Arkansas Supreme Court to remove Griffen from cases related to executions. Griffen sued the justices to be fully reinstated.
After the demonstration, State Sen. Trent Garner (R-El Dorado) wrote on his Facebook page that Griffen should be removed from the bench.
“What a pathetic and depressing display by Judge Griffen,” he wrote. “He has disgraced the office that he holds for years and now is using a desperate, attention-seeking move to further bring shame on himself. I’m calling on House leadership to bring articles of impeachment immediately.”
Griffen’s attorney, Mike Laux, said in a statement that Judge Griffen has the constitutional right to demonstrate, and they will prove it, if necessary.
Young said she and her family were not allowed to be at the Cummins Unit when Lee was executed. She said the last year has been very difficult for them. They do not understand why Lee did not receive the same stay as some of the other inmates and they were saddened by the fact that his time of death was 11:56 p.m., just four minutes before his execution order would have expired.
“My family hates the fact that the justice system failed my brother,” Young said.
James Phillips said last year that the justice system failed him and his family, too, though in a different way. His wife was killed and his daughter was attacked by Jack Jones. Jones was executed on April 24, 2017.
“I hope the state of Arkansas, and the government, and the court system learns from this: it don’t take 22 years to get something done,” Phillips said. “Get it done right, and people don’t have to live like this or think like this for 20-something years.”
A spokeswoman for Attorney General Leslie Rutledge said in a statement Tuesday that Rutledge will keep supporting the death penalty, as it is her job to enforce the sentence given by juries. “The Attorney General fights to ensure justice is carried out for the victims and their families, who continue to suffer through delay after delay,” Nicole Waugh added in the statement.
Critics thought last year’s process was rushed and flawed. They argued that scheduling so many executions in such a short period of time, and planning two of them per day each time, was inhumane. They also said that a couple of the inmates felt undue paid during their executions. But Governor Hutchinson said at the time that the executions were a good moment for our state.
“My goal was to make sure that we did justice in Arkansas in a way that reflected well on the state,” he said the day after the final execution. “I think that was accomplished.”
Gov. Hutchinson has continued to push for the death penalty, scheduling another execution in November 2017 for Jack Greene, Jr. before it was halted by the courts. The state’s supply of vecuronium bromide expired earlier this spring, so no more executions can be scheduled until the Arkansas Department of Correction acquires a new dose.