Arkansas lawmakers meet to consider future of death penalty

Attorney General Dustin McDaniel met with state legislators on Wednesday to discuss what he says is a broken death penalty system, but stopped short of advocating a way to change the fact that Arkansas hasn't executed an inmate since 2005.

"As I see it, our options are limited," he said before a joint meeting of the House and Senate judiciary committees. "We can continue throwing money into a broken system and dedicating resources to litigation. We can modify the system. Or we can abolish the death penalty altogether."

McDaniel's remarks to lawmakers echoed ones he made this month to a group of sheriffs. He pointed to legal challenges and a shortage of drugs used in lethal injections in explaining why the state hasn't executed a condemned prisoner in eight years.

He said he continues to support capital punishment.

Nine of the state's death row inmates are suing Arkansas over its new execution law, and the Department of Correction scrambles to find a different drug to use in lethal injections after losing its account with a company that previously supplied it with chemicals.

The state has no executions pending for now, even though McDaniel asked Gov. Mike Beebe to set dates for seven inmates awaiting capital punishment. Arkansas has 37 prisoners on death row.

Beebe, a Democrat like McDaniel, has said he doesn't have any immediate plans to schedule executions. And on Wednesday, Beebe said he doubts an execution will take place while he's governor.

"There are a lot of obstacles," McDaniel told reporters.

Beebe's decision to hold off on scheduling executions comes as the Department of Correction plans to rewrite its lethal injection procedure to include a different drug or drugs and as prisoners continue to challenge the state's new execution law in court.

That new law came about after the Arkansas Supreme Court struck down the state's previous lethal injection law in 2012, saying legislators had ceded too much control over execution procedures to correction officials. This year, legislators enacted a new law that said the state must use a lethal dose of a barbiturate in lethal injections. However, the new law leaves it up to the Department of Correction to pick the drug -- a move that critics say still gives too much control to the prisons.

The Associated Press first reported in April that Arkansas planned to use an anti-seizure drug called phenobarbital in executions, even though that chemical has never been used in a lethal injection in the United States.

Arkansas has since changed its mind because the state cannot get a hold of that drug anymore.

Department of Correction spokeswoman Shea Wilson said the agency hadn't selected another drug to use as of Wednesday.

With all the questions about the drugs, some lawmakers on Wednesday asked whether another method of execution such as electrocution might be an option, even though McDaniel has said he would be surprised if a majority of the people in the state would support death by gas chamber, firing squad or electric chair.

"My biggest concern is that we have juries who are rendering verdicts that we are not fulfilling," said Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Jeremy Hutchinson, R-Benton. "And that strikes at the very core and the trustworthiness of our entire criminal justice system."