Prison Director Seeks Change in Arkansas Execution Law

A law allowing the head of Arkansas' state prisons to call off an execution if he believes a condemned inmate is mentally incompetent should be eliminated, the system's director said Monday.

Director Larry Norris told members of the state Board of Corrections that he and others will lobby state lawmakers to make the change during next year's legislative session. Under law now, the prisons director can call off an execution and allow state health officials to examine the patient.

If the inmate is found incompetent, the law calls for the governor to order "appropriate mental health treatment." The prison system later can order a reevaluation of the inmate.

Norris told the board the court system and doctors would be better suited to decide a person's competence.

"I'm not qualified to do that," Norris said.

The U.S. Supreme Court banned executions of the mentally disabled in 2002.

In January 1992, Arkansas prison officials executed Rickey Ray Rector, 40, who had shot part of his brain away after killing a Conway police officer in 1981. Officials say the bullet had the same effect as a frontal lobotomy, something defense lawyers said made Rector incompetent. However, state and federal courts ruled that Rector met the federal standard for competency: he understood what he did wrong and the extent of his punishment.

A clemency request for death-row inmate Frank Williams Jr., 41, claims he should be spared execution because he has mental disabilities. Williams faces a Sept. 9 execution date for the 1992 murder of Bradley farmer Clyde Spence.

If changed, the law still would allow the state prisons director to halt an execution if doctors discover a female inmate is pregnant. The law allows for the woman to be executed after giving birth or losing the baby.

The state Board of Corrections approved Norris' legislative package in a voice vote Monday.