A Travesty of Justice in Arkansas

Last night, the State of Arkansas executed Kenneth Williams, the fourth man they have executed in just over a week. The other three men’s names were Ledell Lee, Marcel Williams and Jack Jones Jr. Four other men were supposed to be killed, but they recieved stays of execution from courts.

All of these men were convicted of heinous murders and had served many years of incarceration awaiting execution. But the sole reason that the state scheduled so many executions over such a short period of time was that the state’s supply of one of the drugs used in its lethal injections expires at the end of April. In a statement calling for cancellation of the executions, Bishop Frank Dewane, Chair of the US Bishops’ Committee on Domestic Justice and Human Development, described this twisted scenario in very clear terms:

The schedule of executions was not set by the demands of justice, but by the arbitrary politics of punishment. The state’s supply of a sedative is expected to expire at the end of the month, and so, in a dark irony, a safeguard that was intended to protect people is now being used as a reason to hasten their deaths.

The family of Mr. Williams’ victim wrote a moving letter to the Governor, asking him to grant clemency. They related how they had arranged from Mr. Williams’ daughter and granddaughter to come and visit him, and asked to see him themselves so they could tell him that they forgive him — a request that had been denied. And they said this:

You often hear stories of men who go into prison and become bitter, angry and hateful. I do not believe Mr Williams is one of those men. He found God and I believe his redemption is genuine. Mr Williams is not the same person who killed my father on 4 October 1999. It is the changed man; the new Kenneth Williams that we are asking you to save.

Mr. Williams and Ledell Lee both received Communion before they were executed. Mr. Lee even opted for Communion instead of a last meal. There were significant doubts raised about the mental capacity of some of the men who were executed, and about the innocence of one of them.

None of that mattered. The courts stepped aside and the Governor ordered their execution before the artificial deadline set by the “sell by” date of the deadly drugs.

In his great encyclical The Gospel of Life, Pope St. John Paul said this:

It is clear that, for these purposes to be achieved, the nature and extent of the punishment must be carefully evaluated and decided upon, and ought not go to the extreme of executing the offender except in cases of absolute necessity: in other words, when it would not be possible otherwise to defend society. Today however, as a result of steady improvements in the organization of the penal system, such cases are very rare, if not practically non-existent. (56)

It is difficult to justify the necessity of any executions in the United States today. Our massive prison system is surely capable of detaining potentially dangerous offenders so that they no longer pose a threat to society. We are also well capable of removing convicted murderers from the general population for extended periods of time. A recent report stated that over 150,000 people are currently serving life sentences in the United States, with over 50,000 of them ineligible for parole. There are fewer than 3,000 people who have been sentenced to death and are awaiting execution. It’s hard to see how the fast-track execution of these four men contributes anything positive to the common good, or any way in which it was necessary.

But even if one accepted the argument that the death penalty was justified in these cases, it is still hard to justify the circumstances of these executions. The State of Arkansas displayed a callous disregard for the dignity of those prisoners by treating them — and not just the deadly drugs — as objects to be used up and discarded prior to their expiration date.

The Culture of Death is already far advanced in the United States. Abortion is routinely done for any reason — including eliminating handicapped babies — and is applauded by many influential people in our society. Adherence to abortion on demand is being required as a mandatory condition for being an active member of the Democratic Party. Human trafficking for commercial purposes is permitted in the form of gestational surrogacy and assisted reproduction. And ideologues are seeking to legalize assisted suicide and euthanasia as a way of disposing of lives they consider no longer worth living.

The death penalty is not in the same category as those offenses against human life. They are all intrinsically evil, while the Church still maintains that capital punishment may be morally justifiable under some limited circumstances. But that’s not ultimately what’s at issue here.

The dispensation of justice is a fearsome and profound matter, and should be treated with great caution and seriousness. It is appalling to turn it into a travesty where the executioner is heedlessly racing to beat the clock. Every human life, including that of convicted murderers, deserves more than that.

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