Arkansas un­der fire for plan to ex­e­cute 8 in­mates in 10 days

Ex­pi­ra­tion of lethal drug looms af­ter lit­i­ga­tion de­lays

The Washington Times Daily - - FRONT PAGE - BY VA­LERIE RICHARD­SON

Arkansas has come un­der fire for its rush to ex­e­cute eight pris­on­ers in 10 days, even though some of the staunch­est crit­ics bear re­spon­si­bil­ity for the state’s predica­ment.

The state’s vials of mi­da­zo­lam, one of three drugs used in the lethal in­jec­tion pro­to­col, ex­pire at the end of the month, and there is no guar­an­tee that Arkansas can re­plen­ish its sup­ply any­time soon thanks to pres­sure on phar­ma­ceu­ti­cal com­pa­nies from op­po­nents of cap­i­tal pun­ish­ment.

Why didn’t Arkansas ex­e­cute the eight men sooner? In a word, lit­i­ga­tion. Arkansas hasn’t ex­e­cuted a pris­oner since 2005 as a re­sult of le­gal chal­lenges to the state’s lethal in­jec­tion pro­ce­dures.

The last law­suit crum­bled Feb. 21 when the U.S. Supreme Court de­nied a pe­ti­tion filed by in­mates, leav­ing Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson a nar­row win­dow in which to squeeze in the ex­e­cu­tions be­fore the drug goes bad.

“It’s a grand irony, of course, be­cause [death­penalty] op­po­nents talk about the de­lay and all the rest of that, but they make it as dif­fi­cult as pos­si­ble to ef­fec­tu­ate the method,” said New York Law School

pro­fes­sor Robert Blecker, who sup­ports cap­i­tal pun­ish­ment.

“So there’s a cer­tain hypocrisy go­ing on,” said Mr. Blecker, au­thor of the 2013 book “The Death of Pun­ish­ment.”

The ex­e­cu­tions are slated to be car­ried out on four days — two per day — from April 17-27. That would be the most ex­e­cu­tions con­ducted by any state in such a short time frame since the death penalty was re­in­stated in 1976, ac­cord­ing to the Death Penalty In­for­ma­tion Cen­ter.

Whether that sched­ule holds is an­other ques­tion. The Arkansas Pa­role Board on Wed­nes­day an­nounced its 6-1 vote to rec­om­mend that the gover­nor grant cle­mency to one of the eight, Ja­son McGe­hee, who was con­victed in the 1996 tor­ture and stran­gu­la­tion of 15-year-old Johnny Mel­bourne Jr.

Arkansas De­part­ment of Cor­rec­tions di­rec­tor Ray Hobbs said at a Fri­day hear­ing that the 40-year-old in­mate “has learned his les­son, and he still has value that can be given to oth­ers if his life is spared,” The Associated Press re­ported.

The board has heard five cle­mency hear­ings, and an­other is slated for Fri­day.

Mean­while, at­tor­neys for the in­mates have gone to fed­eral court in Lit­tle Rock to stop the ex­e­cu­tions, cit­ing the “fran­tic pace,” which Arkansas Deputy So­lic­i­tor Gen­eral Ni­cholas Bronni de­scribed as an “at­tempt to get this court to ju­di­cially veto the ex­e­cu­tions.”

Con­dens­ing the time frame in­creases the risk of mis­takes while plac­ing “ex­tra­or­di­nary and un­nec­es­sary stress and trauma on the staff re­spon­si­ble for car­ry­ing out the ex­e­cu­tions,” said a March 28 let­ter to the gover­nor from 23 former cor­rec­tions of­fi­cials.

“A state’s in­ter­est in justice and fi­nal­ity are not served by a botched ex­e­cu­tion,” said the let­ter.

The of­fi­cials cited the bun­gled 2014 Ok­la­homa ex­e­cu­tion of Clay­ton Lock­ett, who took 43 min­utes to die af­ter his IV be­came dis­lodged. Ok­la­homa can­celed a sec­ond ex­e­cu­tion sched­uled im­me­di­ately af­ter­ward, and no state has at­tempted since then to con­duct two in one day.

“Mul­ti­ple dates, set so closely to­gether, in­crease the risk of hu­man er­ror and re­sult­ing tor­ture and in­jus­tice,” said Brian Stull, se­nior staff at­tor­ney with the Amer­i­can Civil Lib­er­ties Union’s Cap­i­tal Pun­ish­ment Pro­ject. Mr. Stull de­cried the Arkansas timetable as “assem­bly line justice.”

Even so, Mr. Hutchinson and At­tor­ney Gen­eral Les­lie Rut­ledge, both Repub­li­cans, have ex­pressed con­fi­dence in the state’s abil­ity to han­dle the ex­e­cu­tions.

“At­tor­ney Gen­eral Rut­ledge sup­ports the death penalty and be­lieves it is past time for the vic­tims’ fam­i­lies to see justice for the hor­ri­ble mur­ders of their loved ones,” her of­fice said in a state­ment. “This of­fice is pre­pared to re­spond to any and all chal­lenges that might oc­cur be­tween now and the ex­e­cu­tion dates. The at­tor­ney gen­eral con­tin­ues to ex­pect that the ex­e­cu­tions will pro­ceed as sched­uled.”

In May, Pfizer be­came the lat­est phar­ma­ceu­ti­cal com­pany to stop sell­ing drugs meant for lethal in­jec­tions, mean­ing that no man­u­fac­tur­ers ap­proved by the Food and Drug Ad­min­is­tra­tion are will­ing to do so, ac­cord­ing to the Bri­tish ad­vo­cacy group Re­prieve.

Mr. Blecker said he dis­agrees with the ex­pe­dited Arkansas sched­ule be­cause it “triv­i­al­izes” the grav­ity of the event and di­verts at­ten­tion from the vic­tims.

“It goes to the whole point of the death penalty. This is a solemn rit­ual, and our pur­pose in do­ing it — re­mem­ber what we’re do­ing, we’re killing a help­less hu­man be­ing, jus­ti­fi­ably in my view — and that’s be­cause of what he did,” Mr. Blecker said. “And this should pro­vide a solemn oc­ca­sion in which we con­nect crime and pun­ish­ment.”

At the same time, he dis­missed con­cerns about un­due pres­sure on staff, not­ing that tak­ing part in an ex­e­cu­tion is op­tional for cor­rec­tions work­ers in most if not all states.

“Any­one who wants to opt out of an ex­e­cu­tion can opt out of an ex­e­cu­tion,” Mr. Blecker said. “And th­ese peo­ple are trained and they’re pro­fes­sion­als.”

The ramped-up sched­ule has gal­va­nized death penalty op­po­nents. The ACLU of Arkansas is lead­ing a protest Fri­day at the state capi­tol in Lit­tle Rock to urge the gover­nor to stop what have been dubbed the #8in10 ex­e­cu­tions.

The eight con­demned men are sched­uled to be ex­e­cuted as fol­lows: Bruce Ward and Don Davis, April 17; Stacey John­son and Ledell Lee, April 20; Mar­cel Wil­liams and Jack Jones, April 24; and McGe­hee and Ken­neth Wil­liams, April 27, ac­cord­ing to the Death Penalty In­for­ma­tion Cen­ter.

They were sen­tenced for crimes in­clud­ing mur­der, kid­nap­ping and rape com­mit­ted from 1989 to 1999. Four are white, and four are black.

“From the thumb­nail sketches I’ve seen, they’re a rogues’ gallery,” said Mr. Blecker. “They’ve tor­tured, they’ve mur­dered, they’ve raped, they were re­peated killers.”


LAST STOP: Eight pris­on­ers are sched­uled for ex­e­cu­tion this month at a fa­cil­ity in Varner, Arkansas. Lit­i­ga­tion has given Gov. Asa Hutchinson a nar­row win­dow in which to use a lethal in­jec­tion drug.

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