Arkansas under fire for plan to execute 8 inmates in 10 days
Expiration of lethal drug looms after litigation delays
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.