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Bloody Arkansas

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It's easy enough to be in favor of the death penalty for abstract reasons. There's revenge, for one, which goes under the alias of justice. There's obedience to the letter of the law rather than its spirit. There are at least as many reasons to favor the death penalty in legalistic debate as there are prisoners waiting to be lined up and killed, all of whom have names, families, friends and a grave waiting to receive their lifeless bodies once they're put to death:


--Don Davis and Bruce Earl Ward, whose executions have been set for April 17.

--Ledelle Lee and Stacey Johnson, who are due to meet their maker three days later.

--Marcell Williams and Jack Jones Jr., who now have till April 24 to live, at least according to the state's crowded schedule.

--Jason McGehee and Kenneth Williams, set for execution on the 27th of what the poet called the cruelest month, mixing memory and desire. Not to mention old-fashioned blood lust. Just as the earth returns to life, it is to receive their bodies as dust returns to dust.

What a cruel fate: to awaken each morning from troubled sleep, if the condemned can get any rest at all, to know that one's days are numbered -- not in the general sense but to exact time and place. Like sunrise on death row of the state's maximum-security wing at Varner, Ark., United States of America, in the sight of God, may He have mercy on their souls and on all of us in whose name this terrible deed is to be done.

Long ago and in a land far away in time and place, an ancient legal code decreed the death penalty for heinous crimes -- but only in the abstract. And any session of the court that dared carry it out would be assigned the damning name of Bloody Sanhedrin for all time. How little progress our so-called civilization has made since those ancient times, which might look quite enlightened when compared to ours.

Even finding witnesses to such a macabre sight has turned out to be a major challenge. The director of this state's department of correction and/or execution, Wendy Kelley, was reduced to appealing to a Rotary Club in Little Rock in her search for qualified witnesses: "You seem to be a group that does not have felony backgrounds and are over 21. So if you're interested in serving in that area, in this serious role, just call my office." And serious this role is -- deathly serious.


One volunteer for this role comes immediately to mischievous mind: the state's governor, the Hon. Asa Hutchinson, for his administration has put all those executions on the official calendar; wouldn't he like to be in attendance when his orders are executed, literally?

Department of Correction spokesman Solomon Graves doesn't seem to have a current account of any witnesses that have stepped forward, but he's beating the bushes for them. So hurry, hurry, hurry and sign up for the big show. No waiting! Immediate seating is available! If you've got the stomach for it.

It won't be easy to find volunteers for this grisly job, says Bill Booker, acting president of this Rotary Club. "What I suspect," he says, "is that some people might support the death penalty, but when it comes to witnessing something like that, it's a different story. It may cause emotional trauma for quite a while. It would be one of the most significant things you'll ever see in your life. ... At this point in my life, I don't know if I'd want to risk being traumatized by it. That doesn't mean that I oppose the death penalty." It's watching it being carried out that he'd like to avoid, though he's a funeral director by profession, on familiar terms with the angel of death. He recalls watching a young man die at the scene of a traffic accident years ago, and that was bad enough.

One member of this Rotary Club, one Charlotte Gadberry by name, says she has no interest in volunteering as a witness for the execution. "I can't imagine," she says, that Director Kelley "will get a lot of volunteers. I don't think I could handle it. I'm not real sure how I feel about the death penalty, but it seems like there should be a better way of treating our fellow man." There is. It's called life imprisonment without parole. Who knows, what with redemption being eternal, it may be a good thing for both the condemned and the conscience of the society that has condemned him.


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