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Arkansas executions: seeking volunteers to witness botched lethal injections

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Arkansas executions
Arkansas executions: Scheduled for death row in April, Top row, from left, Bruce Ward, Marcel Williams, Jason McGehee and Kenneth Williams. Bottom row, Stacey Johnson, Ledell Lee, Don Davis and Jack Jones. Imag via Arkansas Corrections.
Arkansas executions
Arkansas executions: Scheduled for death row in April, Top row, from left, Bruce Ward, Marcel Williams, Jason McGehee and Kenneth Williams. Bottom row, Stacey Johnson, Ledell Lee, Don Davis and Jack Jones. Image via Arkansas Corrections.

Arkansas executions of death row inmates and witnesses shortage looms as a lethal injection lawsuit is launched and drug supplies expiring.

Arkansas is set to execute eight men in a span of ten days this April if the state can find volunteers to witness their deaths by lethal injection.

In order to go through with the 8 executions this April, State law requires at least “six to twelve respectable citizens” otherwise uninvolved in the case, obliged to view the upcoming executions to confirm they are “conducted in the manner required by law”.

Yet there’s a hitch, officials are finding volunteers in scarce supply. 

At a recent Little Rock Rotary Club meeting, Wendy Kelley, Director of the Department of Correction resorted to asking the audience for volunteers to act as witnesses.

“The last times these were set, we actually did not have enough people volunteers,” Kelley told Little Rock Rotary Club 99 members.

A failure to find enough volunteers for each planned upcoming execution means the state can not move forward with those executions.

Since 2005 the state has been suspended from enforcing capital punishment by legal challenges due to difficulty sourcing drugs used for lethal injection.

But it isn’t just the matter of finding willing volunteers to participate in watching someone die. It’s the issue of controversial drugs used in the execution process itself which is also weighing down Arkansas Department of Corrections. Specifically the looming expiration date of the controversial drugs used for lethal injection, including Arkansas’s state supply of Midazolam, the first drug in a three-drug lethal injection protocol, which is set to expire April 31

Midazolam, was introduced in response to the global pharmaceutical company Hospira’s decision to stop producing Sodium Thiopental, a barbiturate general anesthetic previously used in 34 states to execute prisoners.

Sodium Thiopental is still produced in Europe, though banned by the EU for export for the purpose of lethal injection. In December 2011 the European Union extended restrictions to prevent abetting capitol punishment, stating “the Union disapproves of capital punishment in all circumstances and works towards its universal abolition”.

Due the the Sodium Thiopental shortage, a short acting barbiturate was introduced to replaced the anesthetic as a sedative in the three drug cocktail. 

Arkansas executions
Arkansas executions: Pictured, Midazolam, the first drug in a three-drug lethal injection protocol, which is set to expire April 31.

Critics of Midazolam’s use in executions say it is a sedative, not an anesthetic, and is thus misapplied as a first round of lethal injection shots, with inmates sometimes able to feel pain from the subsequent lethal drugs that are administered as noted by a report via the nytimes.

Four states have used Midazolam in a three-drug protocol; Florida, Oklahoma, Alabama, and Virginia. Oklahoma’s botched execution of Clayton D Lockette left him gasping and moaning for 43 minutes.

As recently as of December of 2016 the state of Alabama used Midazolam as the first drug in a three drug cocktail which resulted in the fifteen minute period of heaving and gasping during the execution of Ronald Smith.  

Prior to his execution, Smith had claimed in a lawsuit challenging Alabama’s lethal injection protocol that the first drug to sedate may not make inmates insensate enough so they can’t feel the burning pain the next two drugs would cause.

While Florida has since replaced Midazalom with Etomidate in January of 2017, Arkansas plans to use Midazolam in its upcoming April executions, before supplies are exhausted.

Arkansas has supplies of all three drugs involved in the death cocktail; Midazolam, which renders the inmate camatose, Potassium Chloride which causes paralysis and the inmate to stop breathing and Vercuonium Bromide which stops the heart.

The state’s previous supply of potassium chloride had expired in January, with Arkansas Department of Correction spokesman Solomon Graves announcing that the state now having 100 vials of potassium chloride in its possession.

Along with Arkansas’ supply of Midazolam expiring in April, the state’s supply of potassium chloride supply is set to expire within 18 months, in April of 2018. Nevermind, Arkansas’s supply of Vercuonium bromide expiring March 1 2018.

With suppliers increasingly unavailable, where the drugs being procured continuing to remain shrouded in state secrecy laws, protecting the source of the drugs, the Department of Corrections has found itself in a public relations dilemma. 

Currently 8 states have used a lethal dose of an anesthetic as a single drug method, while six other states, including Arkansas have stated their intention to switch to one-drug protocol but have yet to do so.

Cal Coburn Brown was successfully executed using the single drug protocol in September 2010 marking Washington‘s first execution since August 2001. Brown died one and one half minutes after injection, his death, according to King County Prosecutor Dan Satterberg appearing “quick and painless”.

Attorneys on behalf of 9 death row inmates filed a lawsuit on Monday for a rehearing with the U.S. Supreme Court in response to the 8 scheduled executions during a 10-day time frame.

The lawsuit rests on the argument that the circumstances are “truly extraordinary”, which is reflected by the unprecedented pace not only for the state of Arkansas, but nationwide. 

An excerpt from the suit states, “Executing eight men in ten days is far outside the bounds of what contemporary society finds acceptable”.

Adds the lawsuit, “Just one mistake at any point can have disastrous consequences”.

Reflected, John Williams, an assistant federal public defender based in Little Rock: “The state’s supply of midazolam runs out on April 30, and so the schedule is quite obviously dictated by that, and we think it is inhumane that the state would schedule executions so as to get rid of a drug supply that the evidence shows is cruel and unusual.”

“I think this particular action is extreme and unnecessary,” argued Arkansas State Rep. Warwick Sabin, a Democrat who represents Little Rock. “It creates the possibility for grave error and draws attention to the state in a way that doesn’t ultimately benefit us.”

As an aside, the Arkansas Parole Board recommended Monday that the governor reject long-shot bids for clemency by two of inmates, Stacey Johnson and Ledell Lee facing lethal injection next month.

Arkansas has scheduled these executions in the face of drug shortages brought by companies unwilling to provide them to the state for this purpose. America has watched the moral high ground be taken by an American global pharma company that chose to stop producing barbiturates in this country and the European Union who banned the export of said drugs for such purpose. 

Which is to ask, is the state furthering the negative impact by requiring citizens to watch these gruesome executions?

We have seen Washington state carry out a single-drug protocol execution, essentially anesthetizing the inmate to expiration which lasted one and one half minutes. This is the execution they have the right to be asking america citizens to watch.

Trying to quickly perform 8 lethal injections, before the gravity of each event has been felt by the community is unprecedented and seemingly a miscarriage of justice. This will be the most executions of any state in a months time since 1977 when capitol punishment was reinstated by the Supreme Court. 

Brian Stull, with the American Civil Liberties Union said, ”Each of these prisoners is a person with rights that have to be honored, and each execution is a process that needs to be planned and handled with care and close attention to detail,”

Adding, “And that’s just impossible for Arkansas on this schedule. Because they’re trying to do too much, too quickly, with too little preparation. It’s likely to lead to botched executions.”

If the cocktail of nearly expired drugs doesn’t take proper effect, as it has not many times in the past it is both the inmates and the witnesses who will suffer. 

The eight men scheduled for death by lethal injection of three-drug protocol are Kenneth Williams, Bruce Ward, Stacey Johnson, Don Williamson Davis, Ledell Lee, Jack Harold Jones, Jason McGehee and Marcel Williams

Aware of a daunting time table, Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson has set execution dates between April 17 and 27 and will require the state’s department of corrections to execute two men per day with a few days between each lethal injection. As an aside, Hutchinson hasn’t precluded volunteers from viewing more than one execution….

Arkansas executions
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