The state of Arkansas received heavy criticism and sparked new debates over the death penalty after they rushed to carry out an unprecedented series of 8 executions in 11 days during the month of April as its supply of the sedative midazolam was set to expire at the end of the month. All eight men were convicted of murders that occurred between 1989 and 1999 with some of the crimes described as particularly heinous. The eight men scheduled for execution were Kenneth Williams, Bruce Ward, Stacey Johnson, Don Williamson Davis, Ledell Lee, Jack Harold Jones, Jason McGehee and Marcel Williams.
Governor Hutchinson signed proclamations setting four execution dates for the eight inmates between April 17 and 27. Two men would be put to death on each of the four dates. In a statement he said that it was necessary to schedule the executions close together because of doubts about the future availability of one of three drugs the state uses in its lethal-injection procedure.
Arkansas uses a cocktail of three drugs in its lethal injection formula: Midazolam is used to sedate the prisoner, vecuronium bromide paralyzes prisoners and stops their breathing, and potassium chloride stops the heart. Midazolam is the most controversial of the three since it has repeatedly failed to make prisoners unconscious in other executions, leading to painful deaths. It is not approved by the FDA to be used as an anesthetic on its own, but doctors do use it combined with other drugs before surgical procedures. That is not the case in prisons.
The hurried schedule hit roadblocks from the moment it was announced as attorneys for the eight men attempted to block the executions- including using the argument that midazolam does not effectively prevent a painful death. Separate rulings stayed the executions of two of the prisoners, Don Davis and Bruce Ward. Arkansas appealed the decision in Davis’ case, but the US Supreme Court upheld it. Then Federal Judge Kristine Baker put a stop to all eight executions on April 15, a decision that the 8th Circuit Court of Appeals reversed two days later. By the end of April, four of the men received stays for various reasons.
Despite the drug shortage and the controversy over its use- lethal injection remains the country’s primary method of execution. The drug shortage has spurred some states to begin adapting new and untested combinations of drugs while other states look at other methods of executions. Utah, Tennessee and Oklahoma added or broadened their abilities to use a firing squad, electric chair or nitrogen gas.
With the month over and the expiration date passing-the freshly stirred dust on the death penalty debate has not settled. Capital punishment has long been a divisive issue in the United States with support of it declining to a 40 year low. According to a 2016 Pew Research Center poll, Americans remain split, with 49 percent in favor and 42 percent against it (9% were undecided).
Nationwide, the number of executions has faced a decline as well. Since 2007, seven states have abolished the death penalty and the governors of four others have issued moratoria on the practice. Arkansas is currently one of 31 states with courts that still issue death sentences.