Executions in limbo over access to drugs
Firing squad called humane alternate
The final execution in Arkansas’s condensed April timetable was scheduled for Thursday night, but it could be months or even years before the state is able to carry out another one.
The Arkansas Department of Correction has been unable to procure additional doses of midazolam, the sedative in its three-drug protocol, to replace those that expire Sunday, a dilemma faced by a growing number of states as pharmaceutical companies balk at having their products used for executions.
The result is that Arkansas, which had not executed an inmate since 2005 as a result of a legal battle that was resolved Feb. 21, may have no choice but to change the way it puts prisoners to death, said Robert Dunham, executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center.
“States are faced with several choices, most of them problematic,” Mr. Dunham said. “They can continue to try to obtain the lethal injection drugs they currently use; change their execution protocol to permit the use of other drugs; change the method of execution; do nothing; or repeal the death penalty. We’ve seen states follow each of these approaches.”
Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson set eight executions to run from April 17-27 in order to beat the expiration date, which would have been the most in an 11day time period since the death penalty was reinstated in 1976.
It didn’t work out that way: Four of the eight prisoners won stays of executions or delays. Three inmates were put to death as scheduled. That left 30 inmates on Arkansas’ death row.
One of those, 38-year-old Kenneth Williams, was slated to be put to death at 7 p.m. Thursday at the Cummins unit, which would make him the fourth Arkansas inmate to die this month.
Williams was sentenced to death for the murder of farmer Cecil Boren after breaking out of prison. During his escape, Williams crashed Boren’s truck into that of a water-delivery driver, Michael Greenwood, killing him as well.
He had been serving a life sentence for the 1998 kidnapping and killing of Dominique Hurd, a University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff student. Williams later confessed in prison to committing another murder in 1998.
Greenwood’s daughter Kayla Greenwood bought plane tickets for Williams’ 21-year-old daughter Jasmine and 3-yearold granddaughter so that they could see him before he died, the Springfield News-Leader reported.
“I told him we forgive him and where I stood on it,” said Ms. Greenwood, who sent a message to Williams through his attorney. “When he found out that we are bringing his daughter and granddaughter to see him and that my mom and dad bought the tickets, he was crying to the attorney.”
Robert Blecker, professor at New York Law School and a proponent of the death penalty, has advocated for states to change their method of execution from lethal injection to firing squad, saying the use of drugs is too clinical and morally ambiguous.
But the firing squad has another advantage: No such execution has ever been botched, according to Amherst College professor Austin Sarat in his 2014 book, “Gruesome Spectacles: Botched Executions and America’s Death Penalty.”
On the other hand, “lethal injection had the highest rate of botched executions,” at 7.12 percent, according to a graphic prepared by the DPIC.
Lethal injection drugs have also been challenged repeatedly in court over allegations that they cause pain or fail to work as designed on all inmates.
This month in Arkansas, for example, attorneys argued that the three-drug protocol would be ineffective and result in suffering for two overweight prisoners who suffered from diabetes. One of the inmates weighed about 400 lbs., and the other had had his leg amputated.
Courts rejected their appeals, and the inmates were put to death as scheduled on Monday in the first back-to-back execution in any state since 2000.
Given the problems with drug protocols, Mr. Blecker said states may eventually return to the firing squad. The problem then becomes what to do about inmates already sentenced to die by lethal injection who insist upon it.
“Here’s how I envision the scene playing out: They get smart and they get right morally, and they change the method to the firing squad,” said Mr. Blecker. “But then these guys challenge it, saying, ‘We have a right to be lethally injected, and you can’t lethally inject us because you can’t get the drug.’”
States have also looked into creating their own pharmacies and compounding their own drugs, although Mr. Blecker said the argument then becomes that “there’s no assurance it’s safe, etc.”
Then there’s the problem with public opinion. Mr. Dunham pointed to a 2015 YouGov poll showing that all methods of execution were viewed as cruel and unusual — except lethal injection.
“While most Americans do not consider lethal injection to constitute cruel and unusual punishment, most believe that all of the other execution methods are,” Mr. Dunham said.
● This story was based in part on wire service reports.