Arkansas Is Going on an Execution Spree

April 4th 2017

The state of Arkansas hasn't executed anyone since 2005, but it is about to go on what the executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Arkansas is calling "a ghastly assembly line of death."

The state is planning to carry out eight executions in 10 days, beginning April 17. In response, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) has mobilized at both the state and national level, with the organization providing much-needed context in a thread on Twitter.

The scheduled execution spree would be the most prolific since the Supreme Court reinstated the death penalty in 1976. It also threatens to strain the state's resources and could prove difficult to pull off, legally and logistically, as Arkansas holds all of its executions in a prison located in town of less than 900 residents. 

The state also needs to ensure each execution has the legally required number of witnesses, another obstacle on such a short timeline. The executions were only scheduled in February, leaving those set to be executed little time to file clemency appeals, possibly violating their Eighth and Fourteenth Amendment rights, or so their lawyers contend

The impetus for the state's run of executions is that its supply of midazolam — an anesthetic used as one part of a lethal injection cocktail — is going to expire at the end of April. As NPR reports, the sedative, which the state has never used in an execution, is meant to "render inmates unconscious so they don't feel pain from the subsequent drugs that cause death."

Midazolam has been implicated in a number of botched executions where inmates weren't properly sedated — and took nearly an hour to die. A number of states had been barred by federal courts from using the chemical, including Mississippi and Ohio. However, the Supreme Court later upheld the drug's use in a 2015 decision. 

Of additional concern for anti-death penalty activists is that the last time a state attempted to carry out two executions in one day — three years ago in Oklahoma — the first was a midazolam execution that went so badly that the second one was called off. 

The spree of executions also threatens to put undue strain on the staff of the prison, as well as the town of Gould, where they are scheduled to be carried out. As a Los Angeles Times report notes, "Arkansas law requires that at least six citizens who don’t know the victim or the condemned witness each execution, but the state has had trouble finding as many as 48 volunteers."

At one point, a state corrections official went to a Rotary Club meeting 80 miles away to find volunteers, and failed

Despite the national outcry against the executions, as well as a number of lawsuits filed against the state aiming to stop them, Governor Hutchinson insisted in an email to The Los Angeles Times that the executions were necessary, that the inmates had exhausted all their legal appeals, and — as they'd been cumulatively responsible for 11 murders — were important "to bring closure to the victims’ families.”

A federal judge is currently considering a request from the inmates for more time to file clemency appeals. If granted, that would mean the state wouldn't be able to execute them before their stock of midozlam expires at the end of the month. 

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