The State of Arkansas, which has not executed anyone since 2005, plans to execute seven men (a fifth of its death row) in just 11 days beginning with a double execution on Monday, April 17. Since the death penalty was reinstated in 1976, no state has executed this many people in such a short time period.
The state says it is rushing to execute these men before its supply of midazolam, a sedative that has been implicated in botched executions in several states, expires.
Midazolam is the first of three drugs in Arkansas’s lethal injection protocol. It is followed by vecuronium bromide, which causes paralysis, and potassium chloride, which stops the heart. Ohio, Oklahoma, Arizona, and Alabama have carried out executions in recent years in which midazolam failed to keep inmates unconscious, and they were observed gasping for breath, snorting, writhing, convulsing, and otherwise showing that they were conscious and in excruciating pain. The botched execution of Clayton Lockett in Oklahoma was found to be attributable in part to “extra stress” from the scheduling of two executions the same day.
In 2015, Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor wrote in dissent that, when midazolam fails to maintain unconsciousness, the lethal injection process paralyzes the inmate and stops his heart “in a torturous manner, causing burning, searing pain” that “may well be the chemical equivalent of being burned at the stake.”
Lawyers for the men have argued that the unprecedented schedule compounds the risk of suffering and harm to these individuals. (Nearly two dozen former corrections officials also expressed concern about the potential harm to the mental health of correctional officers in an open letter to the governor.) Their request to the United States Supreme Court to review a ruling upholding Arkansas’s lethal injection law was denied yesterday. Today, they asked the state supreme court to stay the executions while the Supreme Court addresses their motion to reconsider.
Governor Asa Hutchinson originally scheduled eight executions, but Jason McGehee earned a recommendation for clemency from the parole board and his execution was stayed by a federal judge.
Four of the remaining seven men appear to suffer from serious mental illness or intellectual impairment.
UPDATE: On Monday, April 17, the Arkansas Supreme Court ruled 4-3 to stay the executions of Bruce Ward and Don Davis, who were originally scheduled to be put to death Monday night.