LITTLE ROCK — The American Bar Association on Tuesday urged Gov. Asa Hutchinson to slow the state’s plan to execute seven inmates over an 11-day period starting Monday.
Hutchinson responded that the inmates’ executions have already been delayed too long.
In a letter to the governor, ABA President Linda Klein said, “Our concern arises from the various ways that this unprecedented execution schedule undermines due process and impedes adequate legal representation in the individual cases.”
Arkansas is rushing to carry out seven executions before its supply of one of its execution drugs expires at the end of this month. Hutchinson originally scheduled eight executions between Monday and April 27, but a federal judge stayed the execution of Jason McGehee after the state Parole Board recommended that his sentence be commuted from death to life without parole.
Klein wrote in her letter that the ABA has no position on the death penalty, but she said the lawyers’ group believes executions should only be carried out when a state has ensured sufficient procedural safeguards to decrease the risks of injustice. She said that can only happen when all decision makers have adequate time to assess claims for relief and when inmates have qualified, resourced and conflict-free lawyers to present those claims.
“We are troubled that this current execution schedule appears not to allow for these necessary safeguards and prioritizes expediency above due process. Because neither Arkansas decision makers nor defense counsel currently have adequate time to ensure that these executions are carried out with due process of law, we simply ask that you modify the current execution schedule to allow for adequate time between executions,” she said in the letter.
Klein also expressed concerns about the mental states of two of the condemned inmates.
“Jack Jones and Bruce Earl Ward have been diagnosed with bipolar disorder and paranoid schizophrenia, respectively, and are being treated with strong antipsychotic medications while on death row. The ABA has a longstanding policy urging states not to execute individuals with such significant mental disorders,” she wrote.
Hutchinson said in a statement Tuesday, “The American Bar Association is one of the biggest promoters of endless litigation, and that pattern seems to continue with death penalty cases, where — in one case — the litigation has continued for more than 24 years. That’s unacceptable. The families of the victims have not only had to live with the loss of their loved ones through brutal murders, but they’ve also had to live with the unending review of these cases year after year after year.
“Now to suggest, after all of the court reviews have been completed, that they ought to be delayed once again shows an incredible amount of insensitivity to the victims and their families who continue to suffer because of these heinous crimes,” he said.
The state’s execution schedule, unprecedented in the modern era, also has drawn attention this week from, among others, author John Grisham and former Arkansas death-row inmate Damien Echols.
In an opinion piece published Monday in USA today, Grisham, an Arkansas native and the author of books such as “The Firm” and “A Time to Kill,” called the plan “a spectacular train wreck.”
Referring to the original plan to execute eight men, Grisham wrote that the schedule was “something not even Texas, with its vaunted assembly line, has ever attempted.”
“Indeed, no death-happy state has ever dreamed of eight kills in such a short time,” he wrote.
In an NBC News report published online Tuesday, Echols said he will make his second return to Arkansas since his release from prison in 2011 as part of a plea deal that allowed him, Jessie Misskelley and Jason Baldwin to plead guilty to the 1993 killings of three boys in West Memphis but also continue to claim they are innocent.
Echols is scheduled to take part in a protest on the Capitol steps at 1:30 p.m. Friday — Good Friday — organized by the Arkansas Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty.
“It takes a lot for me to go back to Arkansas,” Echols told NBC News. “It’s a place that holds nothing but horror and despair for me. This whole situation is horrific and fills me with despair to the point that I wake up at night trying to scream.”