Editorial: Arkansas is turning its death penalty into an assembly line

Arkansas Governor Asa Hutchinson has sparked controversy by announcing that the state plans to execute the eight inmates, pictured abover, over a 10-day period in April.
(Arkansas Department of Correction/AFP/Getty Images)

The director of Arkansas’ corrections department appeared at a Little Rock Rotary Club meeting Tuesday with an unusual appeal. The state needs volunteers — as many as 48 by mid-April — and the qualifications are simple. “You seem to be a group that does not have felony backgrounds and are over 21,” the director, Wendy Kelley, told the lunch gathering. “So if you’re interested in serving in that area, in this serious role, just call my office.” And what exactly would the Rotarians be volunteering for? To watch the state put eight men to death over 10 days in April.

No state has executed so many people in such a short time since the U.S. Supreme Court revived the death penalty in 1976. Arkansas is one of several states that requires “citizen witnesses” for each execution — in Arkansas’ case a minimum of six people who don’t know the victim or the condemned inmate (nothing precludes a witness from sitting through more than one).

But Arkansas’ assembly-line pace of executions has corrections officials scrambling, and thus Kelley’s trip to the Rotary Club (the Arkansas Democrat Gazette reported that none of the club members took up Kelley’s call).


As absurd as that scenario is — “Hey! Who here wants to watch someone be put to death? Huh? You with me?” — Arkansas is in this rush because its supply of midazolam, the first of three drugs in its execution protocol, reaches its “use by” date on April 30. And with drugmakers refusing to sell to executioners, it’s unclear whether Arkansas can replenish its supply. So the state is in a macabre race to see which expires first: The eight condemned men or a drug it wants to use to kill them. Heaven forbid that Arkansas and other states just abandon the barbaric practice of capital punishment, as almost every country around the world has done.

Kelly should at least be honest about what the witnesses may see. Midazolam is supposed to render the inmate insensate before a second drug paralyzes the person and a third stops the heart. But midazolam — medically approved to sedate patients before an operation, not to render them so unconscious they can’t feel — has been involved in several botched executions. Most recently, Ronald Bert Smith Jr. “appeared to be struggling for breath and heaved and coughed and clenched his left fist” for 13 minutes after the midazolam was administered Dec. 8 in Alabama’s execution chamber. Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor recently wrote that prisoners executed with the drug “are suffering horrifying deaths beneath a ‘medically sterile aura of peace’ ” and that lethal injections “may turn out to be our most cruel experiment yet” in finding a humane method of execution.

So step right up, people of Arkansas, and save your seats. Time’s running out.

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