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The World Watches

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It is a plea for mercy -- not out of the Arkansas statutes but from an older and more venerable legal code: Forgive them, Father, for they know not what they do. But it's a plea that cannot be made today on behalf of the people of this sovereign state. For we still have the death penalty, still tell pollsters we like it and insist that our politicians bow to it before sending them to Little Rock. We know exactly what we do. And the whole world is watching.

Vengeance is mine, sayeth the almighty State of Arkansas -- because it still plans to kill a half-dozen men as soon as it can. But all these judges (federal, state and who-knows-what-else) keep bringing up small details such as the law and the Constitution. And after several rulings over the weekend, the reporters from out of town are packing up again, going home without a good (that is, bad) story about deepest, darkest Arkansas. April is indeed the cruelest month, and this year it mixed vengeance and voyeurism.

Eight executions in 11 days? Or did our betters narrow it down to seven, then six, depending on the mental state and particulars of the condemned? Even if you think six at a time isn't cruel, it would certainly have been unusual. At least on this side of Texarkana. But acting like another head of state, Macbeth by name, our governor decided that if 'twere done, let it be done quickly. And en masse. Let it be said that at least His Majesty Macbeth couldn't sleep o'night because of his decisions. Macbeth does murder sleep! he cried out.

Now a circuit judge in Pulaski County, the Hon. Wendell Griffen, and a judge at the federal level, the Hon. Kristine Baker, have stopped it -- for now. Judge Griffen sided with a drug company that said it didn't want its drugs used to kill people. Judge Baker cited the Eighth Amendment and its prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment: "The state of Arkansas does not intend to torture plaintiffs to death," she wrote. "However, the Eighth Amendment's prohibition of cruel and unusual punishment is not limited to inherently barbaric punishments. A condemned prisoner can successfully challenge the method of his or her execution by showing that the state's method 'creates a demonstrated risk of severe pain' and 'the risk is substantial when compared to the known and available alternatives.' " And therefore, she says, the condemned have a case to make, and should be allowed to make it again.

Kristine Baker might have been speaking for many folks, even in these latitudes, who have changed their minds in the last few years when it comes to the death penalty. Maybe sloppy executions in neighboring states have satiated our blood lust. After all, we have our own souls to think about.

It must be said that Judge Baker's ruling was very much needed to spare these men, at least for now. Because, again, Judge Griffen doesn't seem to understand that a judge is always a judge, even when he or she takes off the robes. According to dispatches, our (very much) activist Pulaski County circuit judge was among the protesters outside the governor's mansion on Friday. Which has folks already demanding he recuse himself from these proceedings. Judge Baker is, well, more judicial.

Good thing, too. For the whole world was watching.

The grotesque is a sure attention-getter, if not the kind of attention this state long has sought from tourists and investors the world over. British, French, Swedish and other journalists or just ghouls in general have been exploring Arkansas so they can show their readers what can happen in a supposedly civilized state.

There's enough irony in this story for connoisseurs of it to last them a lifetime. Our visitors -- welcome, y'all, and come back soon! -- will now have to go back to their editors and explain that their story was killed, not the condemned. A couple of judges chose life. Which is just as well for the image of this state.

Naturally, there will be objections to canceling, or even postponing, these executions. Doubtless we'll hear from the pols with one eye on the next election: Line 'em up and mow 'em down! What, not drawing and quartering, too? Once upon a time, somebody could have said, "We've always done it this way," when speaking of crucifixion.

What's next? This still being the United States of America, we expect ... lawsuits galore. And more filings. And rulings. And appeals. And more protests and marches and speeches and politicians seeking re-election and local judges seeking publicity. What a country!

But for now, Death must wait. How long? Perhaps only He knows.

How long must Arkansas condemn people to death, and still plaster everything in sight with Choose Life bumper stickers? That's a question we can answer ourselves.

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