What You Need to Know About Arkansas, America, and the Death Penalty

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On the morning of April 20, it seemed entirely possible that Ledell Lee would live to see another day. Lee, an Arkansas inmate on death row for murder since 1995, was scheduled to die that evening, but he had been granted a temporary reprieve, thanks to a court ruling barring Arkansas from using one of the drugs needed to kill him.


But the ruling would be reversed later that afternoon by the Arkansas Supreme Court, which allowed the state to continue using the drug, vecuronium bromide. The U.S. Supreme Court declined to put a stop to the execution.

At 11:56 pm Central time, Lee became the first person to be put to death in the state of Arkansas in 12 years. He had maintained his innocence the entire time.

Before April is done, it’s possible that three more men will join him—part of a grim marathon of death that Arkansas is racing to complete by the end of the month.

Lee’s—carried out in the face of disturbing questions about the fairness of his trial and sentence—has, once again, elevated the issue of the death penalty in America to the forefront of the national conversation.

To better understand capital punishment in America—how it works, who it affects, and the myths that continue to surround it—we’ve compiled 10 of the best long form articles on the subject from Fusion and around the web.

1. There Is No Justice in Killing Dylann Roof,” by Clint Smith, The New Yorker

“Those who support the death penalty are accepting a practice that is both ineffective and fundamentally flawed. It means supporting a system that not infrequently kills those with serious mental illness. It means supporting a system in which an execution is far more likely to take place when the convicted murderer is black and the victim is white, than it is when the victim is black and the killer is white. It means supporting a system that has sentenced, and continues to sentence, innocent people to death. In our impulse to rid the world of those we find reprehensible, we forget that we are also ridding the world of those who have done nothing wrong.”


2. Racism Is Keeping the Death Penalty Alive,” by Jason McDaniel and Sean McElwee, Fusion

“One question on the ANES survey asks respondents, “Do you favor, oppose, or neither favor nor oppose the death penalty for persons convicted of murder?” We compared this data with other ANES questions that ask respondents questions about racial resentment—such as whether they think black people are lazier and more violent than white people...whites who displayed high levels of racial resentment in their responses were far more likely to support the death penalty.”


3. “Damien Echols Says He Is Proof Arkansas Sends Innocent People to Death,” by Richard Fausset, The New York Times

“I’m still scared. I’m still absolutely horrified,” Mr. Echols said in a telephone interview from his home in New York on Wednesday, just before flying to Little Rock. “These people could try to kill me again. They set me up one time, they could easily do it again.”


4. The Cruel and Unusual Execution of Clayton Lockett,” by Jeffrey E. Stern, The Atlantic

“What many people don’t realize, however, is that choosing the specific drugs and doses involves as much guesswork as expertise. In many cases, the person responsible for selecting the drugs has no medical training. Sometimes that person is a lawyer—a state attorney general or an attorney for the prison. These officials base their confidence that a certain drug will work largely on the fact that it has seemed to work in the past. So naturally, they prefer not to experiment with new drugs. In recent years, however, they have been forced to do so.”


5. Where the Death Penalty Still Lives,” by Emily Bazelon, The New York Times Magazine

“Twenty states and the District of Columbia have abolished capital punishment. Four more have imposed a moratorium on executions. Of the 26 remaining states, only 14 handed down any death sentences last year, for a total of 50 across the country — less than half the number six years before. California, which issued more than one-quarter of last year’s death sentences, hasn’t actu­ally executed anyone since 2006. A new geography of capital punishment is taking shape, with just 2 percent of the nation’s counties now accounting for a majority of the people sitting on death row.“


6. What Happened in Room 102,” by Liliana Segura and Jordan Smith, The Intercept 

“From the police interrogation of Justin Sneed in 1997 to transcripts from [Richard] Glossip’s two trials, the picture that emerges is one of a flimsy conviction, a case based on the word of a confessed murderer with a very good incentive to lie, and very little else. As Oklahoma gets ready to restart executions using its newly sanctioned lethal injection protocol, time is running out to answer the question: Could the state be preparing to kill an innocent man?”


7. On the Death Sentence,” by John Paul Stevens, the New York Review of Books

“While support of the death penalty wins votes for some elected officials, all participants in the process must realize the monumental costs that capital cases impose on the judicial system. The financial costs (which Garland estimates are at least double those of noncapital murder cases) are obvious; seldom mentioned is the impact on the conscientious juror obliged to make a life-or-death decision despite residual doubts about a defendant’s guilt.”


8. “How a Death Row Inmate Who’s Been in Prison Since He Was 15 Finds Meaning in Daily Life,” by Casey Tolan, Fusion

Inside the grim visiting room, inmates squeeze into little metal booths to meet their guests. Thick glass separates them at all times—Pruett hasn’t been allowed to touch any of his family members or loved ones for 15 years. “Especially when they’re going to kill you, you’d think they’d let you hug your mom,” he said. “They’re not going to let you do that.”


9. Why Americans Still Support the Death Penalty,” by Radley Balko, The Huffington Post

Yet the scientific certainty DNA testing offers, in contrast to most other forensic specialties, also seems to have reassured the public that we’re now more likely making the right calls. According to Gallup, in 2003, 73 percent of Americans said an innocent person had probably been executed in the previous five years. That number dropped to 59 percent in 2009. In his concurring opinion in Marsh, Justice Scalia also wrote that an exoneration “demonstrates not the failure of the system but its success.”


10. The Witness,” by Pamela Colloff, Texas Monthly

“She could still see some of these men—their chests expanding, their chins stiffening as they took their last breaths.

These memories intruded with such frequency that Michelle no longer tried to push them out of her mind. Instead, she had started recording voice memos, letting her thoughts unspool as she drove alone in the car. She kept one eye on the road that morning as she rummaged through her purse for her iPhone, finally fishing it out and holding the microphone up to her mouth. ‘I support the death penalty,’ she began. ‘I believe that there are some crimes that are so heinous that the only way you can truly pay your debt to society is with your life.’ She spoke with the same deliberation she had used when addressing reporters outside the Walls after high-profile executions. ‘But in other cases, I feel very conflicted,’ she added. ‘There are men I watched die that I don’t think should have.’”


Staff writer, The Root.