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Panel advances victim's family execution witness bill

A Senate committee advances a bill that would allow victims families to witness death row executions. The Senate Judiciary Committee approved Senate Bill 52 on a voice vote Wednesday.
LITTLE ROCK, AR - A Senate committee advances a bill that would allow victims families to witness death row executions. The Senate Judiciary Committee approved Senate Bill 52 on a voice vote Wednesday.

The Arkansas Department of Correction spoke out against the bill citing emotional reaction from victims’ families and lack of space.

"I understand the sentiment, the department does, but we don't have the facilities to make this happen, we just don't," Dina Tyler with ADC says.

But Bilenda Harris-Ritter told the committee her parents were murdered in 1981 and she supports the bill.

“I don't believe the department of corrections staff knows how victims feel," Harris-Ritter says.

The judiciary committee agreed, advancing the bill up to the full senate.

But that death penalty bill is not the only issue being discussed.

The judiciary committee set aside 90 minutes Thursday to hear from those both in support and against ending capital punishment.

Arkansas hasn't executed an inmate since November 2005. Right now, 37 men sit on death row.

Didi Sallings, the head of Arkansas Public Defender Commission, spoke in support of ending capital punishment citing increased costs to the state to defend capital cases and studies that indicate the death penalty is not a deterrent.

Bob McMahon, director of the state Prosecutor Coordinator Office, told the committee that prosecutors throughout the state are able to extract pleas from defendants looking to avoid the death penalty. Prosecutors say that process increases judicial efficiency.

More emotional testimony came from individuals directly effected by violent crime and capital punishment.

Donald Schmidt told the committee nothing needs to change. His son Jonathan Schmidt was a Trumann Police officer shot and killed during a traffic stop in April 2011 by Jerry Lard.

"He executed my son. He didn't murder him, he didn't kill him, he executed him," Schmidt says. "Jerry Lard deserves the death penalty. And I hope to God the state of Arkansas carries it out."

Ray Krone thinks differently. He spent ten years on death row in Arizona wrongly convicted of murder before DNA evidence freed him.

"There's a lot of things to consider in the death penalty folks but please keep in mind the fact that we make mistakes and that innocent people can be sentenced to death and that's on all our heads," Krone says.

Connecticut, Illinois, New Mexico and New Jersey have abolished the death penalty, but there is no legislation filed or planned in Arkansas to do the same.

Committee chairman Sen Jeremy Hutchinson (R-Benton) says it’s good to hear from both sides.

"You come down here with preconceived notions and you don't have all the facts," Hutchinson says. “Minds may not have necessarily changed today but I think something as important as the death penalty, you should review the facts and your beliefs.”

The death penalty will come up again in that committee. The Arkansas Supreme Court ruled last summer the legislature gave too much discretion to the Department of Correction on how to carry out executions.

Lawmakers still must pass a law during the session that can survive another court challenge.

Governor Beebe told reporters earlier this month he would sign legislation abolishing the death penalty if it shows up on his desk.

But, both House and Senate leadership say no lawmaker has indicated an interest in filing legislation.
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