State plans to put eight inmates to death over 10 days
LITTLE ROCK, ARK. — After nearly a dozen years without an execution, Arkansas is racing to put eight men to death next month over a 10-day period — an unprecedented timetable the state says is necessary because one of the three ingredients in the lethal injection will soon expire.
If carried out, the executions beginning April 17 would make Arkansas the first state to execute that many inmates in such a short time since the death penalty was reinstated by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1976.
The accelerated schedule calls for prison staff to conduct four double executions, with only a few days in between. It poses a number of risks, experts say, and the state’s preparations are shrouded in secrecy.
Some attorneys and antideath penalty groups question whether the quick turnarounds will intensify pressure on the prison staff and cause problems, as happened in Oklahoma in 2014, when an inmate writhed and moaned on a gurney for 43 minutes after his injection, or in Arizona, where the fatal dose took nearly two hours to work.
An investigation in Oklahoma found that intravenous lines had been connected improperly, in part because of the “extra stress” from the state’s scheduling of two executions on the same day.
“The stress on the prison and medical staff will be increased, and the risk of making mistakes is multiplied,” said Dale Baich, an assistant federal public defender who witnessed inmate Joseph Rudolph Wood’s slow death in Arizona in 2014. “This, along with using a drug that has been used in numerous botched executions, should make the prison officials in Arkansas very nervous.”
At the heart of the rush is the shortage of the sedative midazolam, which is used to put an inmate to sleep before receiving the lethal chemicals. The Arkansas supply expires at the end of April, and it’s unclear whether the state will be able to find more. Drugmakers have stopped selling it to U.S. prisons because they object to their products being used in executions.
“As states had more and more problems in carrying out executions, their response has not been to fix the problems but to hide behind secrecy to prevent those problems from being disclosed,” said Robert Dunham, executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center.
Gov. Asa Hutchinson said he’s inquired about the effect of the sequence of deaths on prison staff, but said Corrections Department Director Wendy Kelley told him “it’s not any easier to string it out over four or five months.”
The eight inmates are still trying to force the state to identify the suppliers of the lethal drugs, but their confidentiality is legally protected.
Advocates for victims’ families bristle at the notion that the executions are being rushed.
“These people have been waiting for 25 or 30 years. That’s not quick,” said Elaine Colclasure, whose husband was killed by Alvin Jackson, a death row inmate who’s not among those scheduled for execution next month.