LITTLE ROCK, Ark. (AP) — State lawmakers are expected to tackle execution reform in the upcoming legislative session after Arkansas' top court struck down the 2009 execution law earlier this year.
Arkansas hasn't put anyone to death since 2005 — in part because of legal challenges like the one the state Supreme Court ruled on in June.
"It's an important public policy debate that I think the Legislature ought to be intimately involved in rather than shuffling it off to some state agencies," said Sen. Jeremy Hutchinson, R-Benton, who has been tapped to lead the state Senate Judiciary Committee.
The 2009 law said death sentences are to be carried out by lethal injection of one or more chemicals that the director of the Department of Correction chooses. In tossing it out, the high court did not deem lethal injection or the death penalty unconstitutional.
Rather, justices sided with a number of death row inmates who argued the law violated part of the state's constitution that deals with separating the branches of government.
Legislators will have to figure out how to replace it in the 2013 legislative session, which begins Jan. 14.
"Essentially, the Legislature's going to have to be far more involved in ... deciding what methods are used," Hutchinson said Monday. "And we're not going to be able to delegate that authority to the Department of Correction anymore."
Arkansas has 37 death row inmates, but no pending executions. Aaron Sadler, a spokesman for Attorney General Dustin McDaniel, said McDaniel's office "does not intend to make requests regarding execution dates."
Arkansas is certainly not alone in dealing with lethal injection issues, said Richard Dieter, executive director of the Washington-based Death Penalty Information Center. That's partly because there's a shortage of drugs used in lethal injections as companies squirm at the notion of their products being known for killing people rather than saving them.
"Clearly the landscape has changed because of the shortage of the drugs," Dieter said. "And there's also sort of more expectation of detail ... something that goes beyond, 'Just trust us. We'll make sure it works out all right.' They have to spell out a lot more."
However, some say legislators can't spell out too much, lest they leave state corrections officials unable to adapt to changes.
"There has to be some room for us to be able to adjust without having to wait for the next legislative session," Arkansas Department of Correction spokeswoman Dina Tyler said.
Hutchinson agreed, saying: "I don't think we can say as the Legislature: 'You shall use this drug manufacturer.' There has to be some leeway."
Hutchinson, one of six Republicans on the eight-member Senate Judiciary Committee, said he also anticipates a debate about whether the state ought to have the death penalty at all.
"I think the Legislature is going to be of the mind that capital punishment is acceptable under certain circumstances like we currently have under state law," he said.
Republicans, who won control of the Legislature last month for the first time in 138 years, also hold seven of the 20 spots on the House Judiciary Committee. The Speaker of the House will name the chair of that chamber's judiciary committee at the beginning of the session.
In the meantime, Hutchinson said he plans to meet with staff and committee members to hammer out more details.
"I don't think there's any doubt that in our committee ... this is going to be probably the most important issue we do," Hutchinson said.
Associated Press writer Andrew DeMillo contributed reporting from Little Rock.
Follow Jeannie Nuss at http://twitter.com/jeannienuss