What is Asa Hutchinson's motive in pushing for Arkansas executions?

Ed Pilkington in Little Rock, Arkansas
‘I think he’s simply got himself into a trap’: the Arkansas governor, Asa Hutchinson, is pushing forward with ‘conveyor belt’ executions despite widespread backlash. Photograph: Brian Chilson/AP

The Republican governor of Arkansas, Asa Hutchinson, is pressing ahead with a controversial plan to carry out five executions in 10 days despite the intense pressure the unprecedented schedule is imposing on victims’ families and the condemned men.

After several days of frantic legal tussles that ended close to midnight on Monday with three of the initial eight planned executions being put on hold, Hutchinson said he was “disappointed in this delay” for the sake of victims’ families. But he vowed to “fight back”, as the state machinery moved seamlessly on to preparing its death chamber for the next two executions on Thursday.

Vast human resources were expended amid the first wave of scheduled executions, all of which failed to take place by Monday night. On Friday, the killing of Jason McGehee was postponed after a parole board recommended clemency; on Monday the state gave up its hope of putting to death Bruce Ward after local courts slapped stays on his execution; and at 11.50pm on Monday the US supreme court declined to allow the death by lethal injection of Don Davis to go ahead.

In the process, the individuals most intimately involved were put through unthinkable stress. The families of both Jane Daniel and Rebecca Doss, the victims of Davis and Ward respectively, were brought to the Cumins unit, the high-security facility in south-east Arkansas that houses the death chamber, where they had to wait for hours before they were told there would be no resolution that night.

Davis himself spent all of Monday in a windowless cell just feet from the death chamber, watching the clock tick towards midnight, when his death warrant ran out. He was served his final meal of fried chicken and strawberry cake, but was told 10 minutes before the deadline that he would live to see another day.

All of which raised the question: why was Hutchinson bringing all this down upon himself, his state, the victims’ families, the prisoners? What was he seeking in pursuing what has been dubbed a “conveyor belt of death” that has not been attempted at such a pace for more than half a century?

The stated reason for the rush is that the batch of the sedative midazolam used by Arkansas as the first of three drugs in its lethal injection protocol expires on 30 April, and that finding new supplies after that date will be difficult. On a less procedural note, Hutchinson has insisted that his haste is all about the victims’ families.

In an interview with local reporters last week, he was asked about the public outcry over his actions. He replied: “Am I supposed to go to Dick Daniels, the husband of Jane Daniels who was killed [by Don Davis] in Rogers, Arkansas, brutally murdered … and say ‘I was worried about how the state would look’?”

He went on: “When I set these [executions], I thought not only about the process or the responsibility, but also about the victims and what they’ve endured for the last 25 years.”

But the argument that it was all about victims’ rights was disputed by Joseph Perkovich, a lawyer for Bruce Ward, who pointed to evidence that the state had lied to a medical supply company to obtain one of its lethal injection drugs. “Officials have gone to astonishing lengths to carry out a purge,” he said.

Perkovich said that for many relatives of “loved ones lost to inexplicable acts of violence, the promise of executions are a false salve that diminish our humanity, distort our legal system and fail to deliver closure. In the end, we are witnessing politicians and their appointees compromising principles and even the law to orchestrate public spectacles in advancement of their personal interests.”

Questions about the soundness of Hutchinson’s strategy, and about his motives, have been widely debated in Arkansas. The state has not carried out an execution since 2005, and until this moment has largely been on the sidelines of the capital punishment debate in the US.

“A lot of people are left wondering about this. Only he knows what his likely motivations are,” said Janine Parry, a political scientist at the University of Arkansas.

The previous governor of Arkansas, Mike Beebe, a Democrat who served from 2007 until 2015, when he handed over to Hutchinson, issued eight death warrants during his time in office. But much to his relief, all were stayed by the courts.

Beebe declined to comment on his successor’s decision to go ahead with so many executions in such a short timeframe. But he stressed to the Guardian that the decision would not have been made lightly.

“It’s a terrible, terrible burden on any governor,” he said. “No matter how you feel about the death penalty, no matter to what degree you are satisfied by the guilt of the prisoner, it’s still a horrible burden.

“It was for me. Saying whether someone lives or dies, it’s an awful responsibility.”

In the background behind Hutchinson’s controversial posture are the politics of a state that on one level have remained remarkably stable, yet on another have changed entirely in just the past few years.

Public attitudes toward the death penalty remain largely in favour. A recent Talk Business/Hendrix college poll found that 61% supported capital punishment in the state, a level that has held relatively steady for several years.

But the party political makeup of Arkansas has been transformed since 2006. In that year, Parry points out, the Green party put up more statewide candidates for election than the Republican party.

But in 2010, the double whammy of the Tea party revolution and the unleashing of vast sums of corporate cash through the US supreme court ruling known as Citizens United saw a broad change. The year began with the Arkansas legislature 75% Democratic, but by 2014 it had flipped to being 75% Republican and the state is now entirely in the grip of conservative politicians – a phenomenon that hasn’t been seen in Arkansas since reconstruction.

“That’s the fastest, most thorough transformation that any state has experienced in recent times,” Parry said. “It’s a stunning change of the political landscape.”

Hutchinson has ridden the wave of that transition, and been influenced by it, as he has by the advent of Donald Trump, who won Arkansas in the presidential election by 61% against Hillary Clinton, a former first lady of the state.

The governor is a moderate by modern conservative standards on many issues, but he has had to contend with an active and vociferous hard-right wing of the Republican party in the legislature with whom he has had running battles over such hot-button issues as the Affordable Care Act and the introduction of a North Carolina-style anti-transgender bathroom bill, which he resisted.

It is puzzling to observers of his administration that he has chosen the death penalty as the pole on which to pin his rightwing credentials. Doubly puzzling, in fact – first because the Tea Party radical Republicans do not appear to be especially fixated on capital punishment, and second because Hutchinson has been simultaneously pushing one of the most progressive criminal justice reform packages in the country, including the development of drug courts designed to redirect addicts away from prison and into treatment.

Again, the question arises: why should a politician who continues to have popularity ratings in his state of well over 50% expose himself to such national and international criticism over a killing spree all of his own devising? Roy Reed, an authority on Arkansas politics who wrote the definitive biography of the state’s 1950s and 60s governor Orval Faubus, puts it down to a mistake.

“I think he’s simply got himself into a trap,” Reed said. “He understands that people in Arkansas like the death penalty, that’s just the way it is. But he may not have counted on the critical reaction he’s got, and now he’s in it, he’s probably looking for a way out.”

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