The state of Arkansas is moving quickly to pull off eight executions in 10 days during the month of April as it tries to beat the clock on an expiring supply of a controversial sedative used during the lethal-injection process.
The state plans to carry out two executions a day on four days between April 17 and April 27, even as the unprecedented pace of the executions has been criticized by lawyers and former corrections officials. NPR reports that multiple lawsuits have been filed over the execution schedule, but both the governor and the attorney general of Arkansas say the deaths will bring closure to victims’ families.
Although Arkansas carried out a triple execution in 1994 and again in 1997, it’s been more than a decade since the state has executed any death row inmates, and these executions will mark the first time the state has used the controversial drug midazolam, one of three drugs administered during lethal injections.
Midazolam is a sedative that is supposed to render inmates unconscious so they don’t feel pain during the process, but during several executions in which the drug was used, inmates were seen writhing in pain and gasping for air as they died.
It’s worth noting that in 2015, the Supreme Court ruled that the use of midazolam does not constitute cruel and unusual punishment, even with the reports of inmates visibly suffering while under the influence of the drug.
The Arkansas supply of the drug expires at the end of April, and that is why the state is in a rush to carry out the executions; as NPR reports, Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson scheduled the eight executions specifically to take place before the drugs expire.
“One of the three drugs in the lethal injection protocol expires at the end of April,” Hutchinson said in a statement emailed to NPR. “In order to fulfill my duty as governor, which is to carry out the lawful sentence imposed by a jury, it is necessary to schedule the executions prior to the expiration of that drug.”
The inmates scheduled to die in the April executions are Jack Harold Jones Jr., Marcel Williams, Stacey E. Johnson, Ledell Lee, Jason F. McGehee, Kenneth Williams, Don Davis and Bruce Earl Ward.
On Wednesday, an Arkansas federal judge blocked McGehee’s execution, saying that the state’s rushed schedule did not allow enough time for his clemency petition to proceed. A parole board recommended that McGehee be granted clemency, but that decision will be left up to Hutchinson.
U.S. District Judge D. Price Marshall Jr. said he might also rule to delay the execution of Jack Harold Jones Jr. if the parole board approves his clemency petition Friday.
According to NPR, the parole board had heard clemency bids from four other inmates scheduled to die but did not recommend that they be granted mercy, and Marshall ruled that those executions would continue as planned.
The two remaining inmates did not request clemency, although lawyers for Bruce Earl Ward asked Marshall to intervene in his case because “severe mental illness, including persistent delusions that his lawyers are part of a sustained conspiracy against him” made it impossible to apply for clemency by the deadline, but Marshall decided to allow that execution to proceed as well.
According to NPR, there has been an outcry over the risk of botched executions.
The American Civil Liberties Union tweeted in protest of the executions Wednesday saying, “Arkansas risks torturing prisoners to death in its race to execute #8in10 days using failed drug. #deathpenalty”
In a video denouncing the executions, the ACLU cited the most recent botched execution involving midazolam, that of Robert Bert Smith Jr. in Alabama.
As previously reported on The Root, Smith was executed at the Holman Correctional Facility by lethal injection. During the 34-minute execution, Smith heaved and coughed for about 13 minutes and underwent two consciousness tests to make sure he couldn’t feel pain.
For 13 minutes, from 10:34 to 10:47, Smith appeared to be struggling for breath, and he heaved and coughed after the first drug was administered. He also clenched his left fist, and his left eye appeared to be slightly open.
Smith continued to heave, gasp and cough after the first check was performed at 10:37 p.m. and again at 10:47 p.m. After the second check, Smith’s right arm and hand moved.
Hutchinson said in a statement that corrections staff “have confidence” in both the execution schedule and the drug protocol.
Hutchinson said that it is “important to bring closure to the victims’ families who have lived with the court of appeals and uncertainty for a very long time.”
He also noted that if the drug were allowed to expire, “it is uncertain as to whether another drug can be obtained, and the families of the victims do not need to live with continued uncertainty after decades of review.”
Read more at NPR.