In less than two weeks, Arkansas is set to execute more than half dozen death row inmates in just 10 days, and while the number of executions isn’t necessarily unusual, the speed in which they are planned to be conducted is causing concern for some.
Currently, the Arkansas Department of Correction houses 34 death row inmates, eight of which are scheduled to be executed later this month. The executions are set to take place from April 17 to April 27, with two executions scheduled per day for four of the 10 days, an amount no state has seen in more than 40 years.
Set to be executed are Jack Harold Jones Jr., Marcel Williams, Stacey E. Johnson, Ledell Lee, Jason F. McGehee, Kenneth Williams, Don Davis, and Bruce Earl Ward. All were convicted of murder, with some spending more than two decades on death row.
The rush for the executions come as the state’s supply of midazolam, a sedative and one of three drugs used in the lethal injection protocol, will expire at the end of April.
“In order to fulfill my duty as Governor, which is to carry out the lawful sentence imposed by a jury, it is necessary to schedule the executions prior to the expiration of that drug,” Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson, who scheduled the executions, told NPR in an emailed statement.
But midazolam is a controversial drug that’s been involved in a number of botched executions. Additionally, the drug has never been used in the state of Arkansas, which hasn’t carried out any executions in more than 10 years.
Dale Baich, a federal public defender in Arizona, witnessed a botched execution of one of his clients in 2014. Midazolam, which is supposed to work to ensure inmates don’t feel pain during the execution, was used when Baich’s client, Joseph Wood, was put to death. Baich said Wood required 15 injections and took almost two hours to die as he lay on a gurney “gasping and struggling to breathe.”
Baich also pointed to what was supposed to be a double execution in Oklahoma in 2014 that went horribly wrong. The first inmate, Clayton Lockett, was left writhing in pain after his injection which, also included midazolam. Eventually, Lockett died of a heart attack and the second planned execution was canceled.
Baich, who also cited concerns over unnecessary stress experienced by both the medical and prison staff involved, called Arkansas’ rush to schedule the executions “irresponsible.”
“There will be stress on the prison and medical staff, and the risks of making mistakes will be multiplied,” Baich said. “This, along with using a drug that has been used in numerous botched executions, should make prison officials in Arkansas very nervous about going forward.”
Nonetheless, Hutchinson said corrections staff are confident in both the execution schedule, as well as the drug protocol.
The state allows death row inmates to apply for clemency all the way up until the date the execution is scheduled, but Hutchinson said all eight of the inmates have already pursued a series of legal avenues.
“The exhaustion of all appeals and court reviews that have been ongoing for more than a decade,” Hutchinson said.
Currently, two of the inmates scheduled for executions later this month – Jason McGehee and Kenneth Williams – are seeking clemency.
McGehee was convicted by a jury in 1998 of the brutal murder of a friend, whom McGehee and others believed had snitched on them for cashing stolen and forged checks. The victim, John Melbourne, Jr, who was 15-years-old at the time of his death, was lured to a home by McGehee and others, who bound and beat him before setting him on fire. McGehee and two others then took turns strangling Melbourne until he died.
Williams was sentenced to death in 2000, following the murder of 57-year-old Cecil Boren. Boren was killed after Williams escaped from prison where he was already serving a life sentence without the possibility of parole for the murder of University of Arkansas cheerleader Dominique “Nikki” Hurd.
The Arkansas Parole Board has not yet announced a decision on either of the cases.