IT HAS been nearly 12 years since Arkansas executed a prisoner, but Gov. Asa Hutchinson wants to kill eight in a 11-day stretch starting next week. His rationale is as harebrained as it sounds: The state needs to hurry to beat the looming expiry date of one of the drugs in its cocktail of lethal injections.
Talk about turning common sense on its head. Even as a federal court granted a temporary reprieve to one of the condemned men, Mr. Hutchinson is rushing to end the lives of the other seven on an unprecedentedly tight schedule not because justice demands it; nor because the prisoners’ appeals have run their course; nor even because of the cost to taxpayers of maintaining the men on death row. In Mr. Hutchinson’s view, the pharmacological shelf life of a particular sedative — a highly unreliable one, by the way — requires that death’s schedule be expedited.
So hurried is Arkansas’s timetable that witnesses to the executions — state law requires that six “respectable citizens” attend each one — are in short supply. The director of the Department of Corrections, Wendy Kelley, was so concerned at the shortage of volunteers that she asked the Little Rock Rotary Club if it could provide some.
Since 1977, when capital punishment resumed in the United States following a Supreme Court review, no state, not even Texas with its execution enthusiasts, has carried out so many death sentences in such a short span. In Arkansas’s case, capital punishment has been on hold since 2005 owing to court battles and, as in other death-penalty states, a shortage of drugs needed for lethal injections.
That the state is by now out of practice adds to concerns about whether it can competently carry out an execution, let alone seven, over the scheduled course of four days in an 11-day span. Botched executions, resulting in agonizing, drawn-out deaths, have taken place in several states in recent years. As it happens, some of those grisly mishaps arose from problems with the same sedative whose expiration date Mr. Hutchinson cites as the pretext for his planned state-sponsored killing spree.
The drug, midazolam, one of three drugs used in Arkansas’s lethal injection protocol, is in short supply, meaning it may be unavailable after the current stock expires at the end of this month. The drug is regularly referred to as “controversial”; in fact, its use has turned out on occasion to be a nightmare.
Midazolam is meant to knock out inmates and render them insensate so the ensuing injections cause no pain. Yet despite the Supreme Court’s 5-to-4 ruling, in 2015, that the drug’s use does not constitute cruel and unusual punishment, several condemned men snorted, struggled for air and were seen writhing during midazolam executions. In an execution in 2014 in Arizona, Joseph R. Wood III, the condemned man, was reported to have gasped hundreds of times before finally succumbing, after 15 injections and two hours; the procedure was supposed to take 10 minutes.
Mr. Hutchinson’s plan is not just unseemly. It is a scenario for subhuman suffering. If the state goes forward, it will be a blot on Arkansas, and on America.