Several inmates in Arkansas were scheduled to be executed by the end of this month, but a federal judge has temporarily put those plans on hold amid concerns that the executions may be unconstitutional and reckless. The state has appealed the order by District Judge Kristine Baker.
Judge gives inmates a reprieve
So why is Arkansas in a sudden rush to kill these inmates, even though the state hasn't performed any executions in 12 years?
Apparently one of the drugs used in the three-drug-cocktail is going to be past its expiration date at the end of the month, and Republican governor Asa Hutchinson wants to use the drugs before they spoil. And he wants to do this even if it means killing more inmates in a shorter time period than any other state since the death penalty was reinstated in 1976, Slate reports.
The drug that concerned Hutchinson is midazolam, which is intended to render an inmate unconscious before the other drugs take over to cause paralysis and stop the heart.
Originally, eight men were scheduled to be executed, but a series of court orders changed that, reducing the number to six men who were to be executed over a period of 11 days.
Attorneys for the inmates argued that conducting the executions in such haste increased the likelihood for harmful mistakes to occur and also doesn't give the men a chance to prepare a proper defense. Judge Baker seemed to acknowledge this, writing in her order that there was a "significant possibility" that the inmates could successfully challenge the execution protocol.
"The schedule imposed on these officials, as well as their lack of recent execution experience, causes concern," Baker wrote.
"The state of Arkansas does not intend to torture plaintiffs to death. However, the Eighth Amendment's prohibition of cruel and unusual punishment is not limited to inherently barbaric punishments. A condemned prisoner can successfully challenge the method of his or her execution by showing that the state's method 'creates a demonstrated risk of severe pain' and 'the risk is substantial when compared to the known and available alternatives.'"
Unsurprisingly, some key Republicans are not happy with Baker's decision. That includes Arkansas Attorney General Leslie Rutledge, who has already asked the state's Supreme Court to reconsider its decision to halt the execution of Bruce Ward, one of the inmates, 4029 News reports. Online records show an appeal was filed just before 10:45 a.m. Saturday.
"It is unfortunate that a U.S. District judge has chosen to side with the convicted prisoners in one of their many last-minute attempts to delay justice," said Rutledge's spokesman, Judd Deere, in an emailed statement. "This decision is significantly out of step with precedent from the Eighth Circuit and the U.S. Supreme Court."
But John Williams, an attorney for some of the death row inmates, lauded Baker's decision, calling it legally sound and reasonable, Reuters reports.
"The unnecessarily compressed execution schedule using the risky drug midazolam denies prisoners their right to be free from the risk of torture," he said in a statement.
Critics of the drug say it doesn't achieve the level of unconsciousness required for surgery and this makes it unsuitable for executions. Supporters claim it's effective and its use has been authorized by the U.S. Supreme Court.
Hutchinson is apparently unconcerned about the risk of torture and says he plans to meet with Rutledge and prison officials on Monday. He also released a statement saying he expected the legal challenges.
"When I set the execution dates in accordance with the law and my responsibilities, I was fully aware that the actions would trigger both the individual clemency hearings and separate court reviews on varying claims by the death row inmates," he said. "I understand how difficult this is on the victims' families, and my heart goes out to them as they once again deal with the continued court review; however, the last minute court reviews are all part of the difficult process of death penalty cases."
While this is definitely heartbreaking for the families who lost loved ones, rushing the executions prevents the inmates from being able to present a fair defense. Victims and their families need to have their rights respected, but so do inmates. Understandably it's an uncomfortable two-way street, but a two-way street it is.
Baker's decision comes just one day after judge Wendell Griffen, blocked the use of the third drug in the three drug cocktail — vecuronium bromide — which is used to stop breathing and paralyze a person. Sodium chloride, which stops the heart, is also used.
Griffen, however, participated in a protest against the death penalty, and that means his decision is now in question. The Arkansas government is now calling for his order to be nullified.
Hours after he laid on a gurney at a death penalty protest, Judge Wendell Griffen issued ruling halting the executions. AG promising appeal. pic.twitter.com/716OswjaK1
— Chris May (@KATVChrisMay) April 15, 2017
Thursday, two pharmaceutical companies filed a brief asking judge Baker to prevent Arkansas from using their drugs in the executions. In the filing, Fresenius Kabi USA and West-Ward Pharmaceuticals Corp. stated they believed the state's Department of Corrections bypassed controls regarding how the drugs are distributed.
Watch the video below for more information.
Photo by Joe Raedle/Newsmakers
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