Capital punishment in Arkansas

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The Varner Unit, pictured here, houses the State of Arkansas death row for men

Capital punishment is a legal penalty in the U.S. state of Arkansas.

Since 1820, a total of 504 individuals have been executed. According to the Arkansas Department of Correction, as of August 5, 2015, a total of 34 men were under a sentence of death in the state. On June 22, 2012, the Arkansas Supreme Court ruled the current execution law unconstitutional because it let the executive branch decide on some execution issues that the legislature should have.[1]


All but four executions carried out before 1913 were by hanging. Four guerillas were shot on 29 July 1864.

On 25 July 1902 seven men were hung, the most executions in one day in the state.

Almost all executions were for crimes that involved murder. A number of people were also executed for rape and there was one execution for espionage, 17-year-old alleged Confederate spy David O. Dodd, hanged by Union soldiers on 8 January 1864.

In 1913 the method used was changed to the electric chair. The electric chair was constructed from the wood that had previously made up the state gallows. This electric chair would be used for all electrocutions up until 1964. Four more people were hanged in the state — one in 1913, two in 1914 and one in 1930.

The last execution in the state before Furman v. Georgia[2] was that of Charles Fields on 24 January 1964 for rape. New capital punishment laws were passed in Arkansas and came into force on 23 March 1973. The first execution would not come until 18 June 1990 when John Swindler was electrocuted. His was the first and only execution so far on the new electric chair constructed by the state in the 1970s.

According to Michael L. Radelet of the University of Colorado there have been two instances of executions that did not go to plan in Arkansas since Furman. On 24 January 1992 the execution of Ricky Ray Rector was delayed by 50 minutes after the medical staff were unable to find a suitable vein in his arm. The curtain over the witness area was not drawn, and witnesses heard Rector moan loudly eight times. State officials attributed the difficulties to his size and use of antipsychotic medication. The execution of Christina Marie Riggs faced similar delays on May 2, 2000, when staff were unable to locate a vein in her elbow. They eventually found one in her wrist.

There have been at least three death penalty volunteers in Arkansas: Ronald Gene Simmons, Christina Marie Riggs and Clay King Smith.

Legal process[edit]

When the prosecution seeks the death penalty, the sentence is decided by the jury and must be unanimous.

In case of a hung jury during the penalty phase of the trial, a life sentence is issued, even if a single juror opposed death (there is no retrial).[3]

The govenor has the power of clemency with respect to death sentences.[4] He receives for that purpose a non-binding report from the Arkansas Board of Pardons and Paroles.

The method of execution is the lethal injection. If lethal injection is ever ruled unconstitutional, electrocution shall be used to replace it.[5]

Executions in Arkansas are currently performed at the Cummins Unit.

Death row[edit]

Cummins Unit houses the State of Arkansas execution chamber

Male death row inmates are located at the Arkansas Department of Correction Varner Unit's Supermax, while the executions are performed at the Cummins Unit, adjacent to Varner.[6] The female death row is located at the McPherson Unit. In 1999 the female death row was newly inaugurated.[7]

In 1974 male death row inmates, previously at the Tucker Unit, were moved to the Cummins Unit.[8] In 1986 male death row inmates were moved to the Maximum Security Unit.[8] On Friday August 22, 2003, all 39 Arkansas death row inmates, all of them male, were moved to the Supermax at the Varner Unit.[9]

Capital offenses[edit]

Murder is punishable by death if it involves one of the following aggravating factors:[10]

  1. The murder was committed by an offender imprisoned as a result of a felony conviction.
  2. The murder was committed by an offender escaped after being sentenced to imprisonment as a result of a felony conviction.
  3. The offender previously committed another felony, an element of which was the use or threat of violence to another person or the creation of a substantial risk of death or serious physical injury to another person.
  4. The offender in the commission of the capital murder knowingly created a great risk of death to a person other than the victim or caused the death of more than one person in the same criminal episode.
  5. The murder was committed for the purpose of avoiding or preventing an arrest or effecting an escape from custody.
  6. The murder was committed for pecuniary gain.
  7. The murder was committed for the purpose of disrupting or hindering the lawful exercise of any government or political function.
  8. The murder was committed in an especially cruel or depraved manner, that is, preceded by mental anguish, serious physical abuse, or torture upon the victim prior to the murder.
  9. The murder was committed by means of a destructive device, bomb, explosive, or similar device that the person planted, hid, or concealed in any place, area, dwelling, building, or structure, or mailed or delivered, or caused to be planted, hidden, concealed, mailed, or delivered, and the person knew that his or her act would create a great risk of death to human life.
  10. The murder was committed against a person whom the defendant knew or reasonably should have known was especially vulnerable to the attack because:
    • Of either a temporary or permanent severe physical or mental disability which would interfere with the victim's ability to flee or to defend himself or herself; or
    • The victim was 12 years of age or younger.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Nuss, Jeannie. "Arkansas Supreme Court strikes down execution law." Associated Press. June 22, 2012. Retrieved on March 24, 2013.
  2. ^ Furman v. Georgia, 408 U.S. 238 (1972)
  3. ^ "§ 5-4-603 - Findings required for death sentence -- Harmless error review.". Retrieved June 25, 2016. 
  4. ^ Arkansas state Constitution -Article 6 - § 18.
  5. ^ "§ 5-4-617 - Method of execution.". Retrieved June 25, 2016. 
  6. ^ "State Capitol Week in Review." State of Arkansas. June 13, 2008. Retrieved on August 15, 2010. "Executions are carried out in the Cummins Unit, which is adjacent to Varner."
  7. ^ Haddigan, Michael. "They Kill Women, Don't They?" Arkansas Times. April 9, 1999. Retrieved on August 15, 2010.
  8. ^ a b "2006 Facts Brochure." Arkansas Department of Correction. July 1, 2005-June 30, 2006. 25 (25/38). Retrieved on August 15, 2010.
  9. ^ "Death Row On The Move" (Archive). KAIT. August 26, 2003. Retrieved on August 15, 2010.
  10. ^ "§ 5-4-604 - Aggravating circumstances.". Retrieved June 25, 2016. 

External links[edit]