Sarah Whites-Koditschek

Reporter

Sarah Whites-Koditschek is a Little Rock-based reporter for Arkansas Public Media covering education, healthcare, state politics, and criminal justice issues. Formerly she worked as a reporter and producer for WHYY in Philadelphia, and was an intern and editorial assistant for Morning Edition at National Public Radio in Los Angeles and Washington D.C.

Sarah is a graduate of Smith College, where she earned a bachelor’s degree in American Studies. She was a student at the Stabile Center For Investigative Journalism at Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism.

She has won awards from the Associated Press in Arkansas as well the Public Radio News Directors Inc.

Contact Sarah at sarah@arkansaspublicmedia.org or 501-683-8655.

Ways to Connect

Arkansas Department of Correction

The United States Supreme Court ruled Monday that an Alabama death row inmate has the right to a mental health evaluation from a neutral party. Previously, such evaluations were done by doctors within state government. 

In April, Arkansas inmates Don Davis and Bruce Ward were granted stays of execution after asking for such independent evaluations.

Sarah Whites-Koditschek / Arkansas Public Media

At a brainstorming session after school recently at district headquarters, a group of black school employees sit around a U-shaped table discussing how to become principals. Coach Shawn Burgess, head of human resources at the Pulaski County Special School District, speaks to two women in the room who recently interviewed for leadership positions and didn’t get the job.

“And it’s not what you did wrong, per se. It’s about, ‘When is it my time?’” she said.

“That’s right. Um-hmm. That’s it,” echo the staff.

Jennifer Gibson / Arkansas Public Media

An 11-member jury ruled in favor of former Little Rock police Lt. David Hudson in an excessive force case in federal court on Wednesday.

 

Hudson was working as an off-duty security guard at Ferneau, a restaurant in the Hillcrest neighborhood, on Oct. 29, 2011 when he punched Chris Erwin in the face seven times on the sidewalk outside after asking Erwin and his party to leave the establishment. 

Former Little Rock police Lt. David Hudson told a federal jury Tuesday that he took the only safe option available. That, he said, is why he repeatedly punched a man he asked to leave a Little Rock restaurant in 2011.

“After the seventh punch, I felt from his body, and his body language, that he was ready to submit to arrest,” said Hudson.

Arkansas Public Media

A federal jury trial began Monday in an excessive force lawsuit against a retired Little Rock Police Department officer.

In 2011, now retired Lt. David Hudson was recorded on video hitting Chris Erwin in the face at least seven times and slamming him against a wall. This was after the officer told Erwin and his friends to leave a private party at Ferneau, a restaurant and bar in Hillcrest.

Arkansas Department of Correction

The Arkansas State Medical Board dropped a possible investigation Thursday into a Department of Correction-affiliated doctor’s role in obtaining a lethal injection drug.

The board was reviewing whether an ADC doctor might have used his license to help obtain a lethal injection drug from the McKesson Company.

McKesson sued the department in April, claiming a physician’s license on file had been used to purchase the drugs under false pretenses.

Board attorney Kevin O’Dwyer says the board ruled to drop the matter after finding no proof of the doctor’s involvement.

Sarah Whites-Koditschek / Arkansas Public Media

Arkansas is preparing an application for changes to the state’s Arkansas Works healthcare program even as federal lawmakers propose budget cuts that would significantly de-fund it.

The Congressional Budget Office on Wednesday released an analysis of the possible impact of health care legislation passed by the U.S. House, the American Health Care Act, that found a proposed $834 billion in cuts would cause 23 million people to lose insurance under the legislation — 14 million of those would be Medicaid patients.

Jacob Kauffman / Arkansas Public Media

The U.S. Senate plans to spend the summer writing health care legislation to repeal, replace, or tweak the Affordable Care Act. The House has passed a bill that congressional analysts say would reduce the deficit and cut 23 million people from their insurance. Arkansas Public Media’s Sarah Whites-Koditschek spoke with Senator John Boozman about his goals for health care.

Joe Thompson is CEO of the Arkansas Center For Health Improvement
Sarah Whites-Koditschek / Arkansas Public Media

For lawmakers, caregivers and patients  a solution to the state legislature’s multi-year process of bringing a new type of coordination to a traditional Medicaid population is set to be finalized this summer.

PASSE, or Provider-led Arkansas Shared Savings Entity, will be a new oversight entity made up of nonprofit and for-profit health providers to manage the care of the state’s medically needy Medicaid population. It includes the elderly, developmentally disabled and mentally ill. The deadline for these companies to apply to be in PASSE is June 15, according to the Department of Human Services and the Arkansas Insurance Department.

Sarah Whites-Koditschek / Arkansas Public Media

Arkansas's General Assembly has given initial approval to healthcare changes not possible under President Obama. 

The modifications would move about 60,000 out of the subsidized Medicaid expansion that took place after the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (Obamacare) and under the guidance of Democratic Gov. Mike Beebe. These recipients would become customers in the regular exchange. The changes also include new Medicaid work requirements.  

A final vote is expected Wednesday morning.

Arkansas has carried out its final execution for the month of April.

Eight death row inmates were scheduled to die in less than two weeks in Arkansas in four double executions. Ultimately, four inmates were executed, including one double execution.

Death row inmate Kenneth Williams, 38, was pronounced dead at 11:05 p.m.  The lethal injection began at 10:52 p.m.

Williams' execution, which had been scheduled for 7 p.m., was on hold while the U.S. Supreme Court reviewed legal challenges. It ultimately denied all claims.

Sarah Whites-Koditschek / Arkansas Public Media

Arkansas executed two men in one night this week, and there is a dispute about how it went. Attorneys for the first man executed Monday, Jack Jones, say he gasped for air as he died. Media witnesses say they simply saw Jones’ lips moving. None of the execution witnesses were allowed to hear Jones’ sounds.

Andrew DeMillo, an Associated Press reporter who witnessed Jones’ execution, reported back to other journalists at the prison that Jones’ lips had moved during the lethal injection process.

Jacob Kauffman / KUAR

10:39 Update:

An ADC spokesman says Marcel Williams was pronounced dead at 10:33 p.m. The procedure began at 10:16. 

A spokesman for the Arkansas Department of Correction declared that Jack Jones was executed Monday night by lethal injection. His execution began at 7:06 p.m. and he was declared dead at 7:20 p.m.

"He was covered in a sheet with his arms extended," said media witness, Andrew DeMillo, from the Associated Press. DeMillo noted Jones' lips continued moving for several minutes after the execution began though witnesses were not able to hear sound from the execution chamber.

Bobby Ampezzan / Arkansas Public Media

A legal challenge to Monday's planned execution of Jack Jones was rejected by the state Supreme Court.

In an Arkansas Public Media story yesterday reported Jack Jones’ attorney Jeff Rosenzweig objected to the jury in Jones' sentencing. Specifically, they filled out paperwork to show contradictory findings about whether there were valid reasons, or mitigating factors, to avoid a death penalty sentence.

His attorney Jeff Rosenzweig argued precedent in Arkansas is to grant re-sentencing when there’s been such an error.

Sarah Whites-Koditschek / Arkansas Public Media

Arkansas’s execution secrecy law prevents the identities of drug manufacturers and sellers from being public. It also protects the identities of people carrying out executions.
 
But inmates’ attorneys say that secrecy, and a general lack of information about the state’s lethal injection protocol, obscure whether adequate safeguards are in place to use the controversial drug midazolam.

Brian Chilson / Arkansas Times

Arkansas’s now six scheduled executions this month have been effectively stayed, again. This time it’s the result of a drug supplier suing to block usage of its product in the state’s lethal injections.

Pulaski County Circuit Court Judge Alice Gray in Little Rock has granted a temporary injunction in favor of the drug supplier McKesson Corp. The company says the Department of Correction used deceptive practices to obtain its vecuronium bromide.

Testimony from both sides diverged on whether prison officials were forthright that they were ordering the drugs for use in an execution. 

The Takeaway

On Friday, a judge in Arkansas halted the scheduled executions of seven death row inmates. The executions were scheduled to begin today and be carried out over 11 days. The men had been fast-tracked because the state's supply of the controversial drug, midazolam, is set to expire at the end of the month.

Bobby Ampezzan / Arkansas Public Media

A federal judge in Little Rock has stayed the executions of eight inmates scheduled this month. The ruling came down Saturday morning granting a preliminary injunction in the case.

The inmates had argued the state’s lethal injection protocol creates a risk of severe pain, and federal Judge Kristine Baker agreed, while expressing regret for the further delay caused to families of the inmates’ victims.

Pulaski County Circuit Court Judge Wendell Griffen put a separate stay on the use of one of the execution drugs Friday, after a manufacturer filed suit to block its use.  Two other inmates had also received separate individual stays.

Eastern District of Arkansas / United States Federal Court

The effects of the sedative midazolam, along with Arkansas's execution practices generally, were the subject of a federal hearing that began in Little Rock Monday that could halt seven planned executions of death row inmates starting next week.  

State Solicitor General Lee Rudofsky told U.S. District Judge Karen Baker that the inmates' case has no basis in law, and that their complaints under the Eighth Amendment have already been dismissed by previous U.S. Supreme Court and 8th Circuit Court of Appeals rulings.

He deflected arguments by the inmates' attorneys that an expedited schedule of double executions over ten days would minimize the inmates' access to effective counsel and increase the risk of error at the Arkansas Department of Correction.

"A risk of maladministration or accident is not cognizable under the 8th Amendment, but more importantly, their allegation is entirely speculative."

Arkansas Public Media

A federal judge has granted an injunction in the execution of Jason F. McGehee, one of the eight Arkansas inmates scheduled to be executed later this month.

Marshall denied requests for injunctions for five other condemned men whom the parole board did not recommend clemency.

 A lawyer for Arkansas death row inmates scheduled for execution later this month is arguing the state's accelerated timeline is subverting the state's clemency hearing protocol, functionally eliminating a public input period for the condemned men.

Public defender Julie Vandiver made that argument today inside federal Judge D.P. Marshall Jr.'s courtroom in Little Rock.

  Meanwhile, the state Supreme Court today stayed a lower court's ruling that the Arkansas Department of Corrections must release information about the drugs expected to be used in the executions.

Lindsay Johnson / National Pubic Radio

A bill to create educational savings accounts for Arkansas students failed in the Arkansas House today on a 46 to 39 vote Friday.

The so-called “Parental Choice Program,” SB 746, was not written to be a traditional vouchers program financed directly by the state. Instead it would have created non-profit organizations to funnel contributions from taxpayers and corporations to parents for their children’s school of choice. Donors to those organizations would get a 65 percent tax credit at an estimated $3 million annual cost to the state for three of a four-year pilot.

Sarah Whites-Koditschek / Arkansas Public Media

A bill to cap the number of enrollees in the state’s Medicaid expansion pool at its current rate, roughly 332,000, is progressing through the Arkansas legislature despite violating federal law.

HB1465, sponsored by Rep. Josh Miller, (R-Herber Springs), passed the full House earlier this month and is scheduled to go before the Senate Public Health, Welfare, and Labor committee Wednesday.

Approved by the legislature and then-Gov. Mike Beebe in 2013 as the Private Option, the state's response to the Affordable Care Act of 2009 provides health coverage for low-income Arkansans. It was rebranded by Gov. Asa Hutchinson as Arkansas Works in 2015.

The federal government currently pays for 95 percent of the Medicaid expansion costs, and that is slated to drop to 90 percent in 2020.

“It’s not a boon to the people of Arkansas,” said Miller.

Sarah Whites-Koditschek / Arkansas Public Media

They sit in rows, 150 closely shaven men in yellow uniforms and white identification badges, before opposing walls, in a cinder-block walled gymnasium.  

A selected group of four sit in plastic chairs forming a circle before their co-residents. Two stand up and shake hands, and the others say, “Squash it!” and clap.

These residents at Little Rock’s all-male Community Corrections Center have a daily ritual, a conflict resolution practice, meant to teach them interpersonal skills before they return to the real world.

Sarah Whites-Koditschek / Arkansas Public Media

Gov. Asa Hutchinson is endorsing a proposal to end the dual recognition of Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert E. Lee on the same day each year.

He took to the lectern Wednesday to say that, as Americans celebrate the slain Civil Rights icon, residents of the state are presented with a choice.

“That choice that is there, it divides us as Arkansans and as a nation,” Hutchinson said.

Sarah Whites-Koditschek / Arkansas Public Media

Schools in Arkansas get $6,600 for every student. So when kids leave a public school, the money leaves too. The state chips in temporarily to cover the financial loss, but a pair of lawmakers want to end that.

Sarah Whites-Koditschek / Arkansas Public Media

Public school districts in Arkansas regularly buy and sell property, pending approval of local education boards, of course. But today, the Arkansas Senate approved a bill that would take some of that control away.

Senate Bill 308 would allow charter schools the right to purchase or lease unused public school buildings, a seemingly small concession that nonetheless raises big questions about local versus state control of schools and inspired a heated back and forth between senators this week.

Sen. Alan Clark (R-Lonsdale) said Tuesday that some public school districts let buildings sit empty, a misfortune he equated to murdering a building.

“We have had schools literally rot to the ground rather than let someone use them for educational purposes. That should never happen.”

Sen. Linda Chesterfield (D-Little Rock) had a lot of questions for Clark. She told a Senate Education Committee Tuesday that the bill is heavy handed, and she said it takes local control from public districts.

Sarah Whites-Koditschek / Arkansas Public Media

Under a bill that cleared the Senate Education Committee Tuesday on a voice vote, all private schools would be given public funds to take special needs kids if parents so choose, even if they haven’t achieved what’s called “accreditation.”

The Arkansas Department of Education says it can take four years to get that status. State Sen. Linda Chesterfield (D- Little Rock) says accreditation is evidence that the schools are doing a good job.

“I don’t think you do it by allowing kids to be put some place for four years that’s not accredited and may never be accredited.”

Sarah Whites-Koditschek / Arkansas Public Media

Teachers in Arkansas’s lowest paying districts could see a small pay bump in their salaries soon.

A bill to increase minimum teacher salary in Arkansas is headed to the Senate Education Committee. It would bring the lowest paid Arkansas teachers up $400 dollars from the current $31,000 minimum.

Yang family

The Arkansas Supreme Court ruled Thursday to send a case against the city of Little Rock's 911 and Metro EMS services to trial court.

The decision was based on the city's failure to adequately prove and document its insurance policy to a lower court, thereby voiding its claim to sovereign immunity, which would protect it from civil suits.

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