Last year, Arkansas shocked the world with a “conveyor belt” of executions rushed through for a reason that almost exceeds belief: The state was worried that its execution drugs were expiring and it wouldn’t be able to get more. Now, some of those who managed to get stays are wondering if their time is up as well, as another expiration deadline looms.
This absurd situation only highlights the injustice of the death penalty.
According to the BBC, Arkansas uses a combination of three drugs in its execution protocol: the sedative Midazolam, vecuronium bromide, which causes muscle paralysis and respiratory failure, and potassium chloride to stop the heart. Like other states, Arkansas is struggling to secure a supply of these medications – especially because some drug companies are refusing to sell to the prison system and directing their distributors to similarly deny access to drugs that could be used in executions. Some states have built up stockpiles of medications or used compounding pharmacies to manufacture drugs.
Arkansas opted to built up a collection of drugs, but now, they’re about to expire — and that will leave the state with the option of discarding the drugs, or rushing to put them to use. Since the medication may be challenging to replace, some death row inmates fear the execution process may speed up.
Three inmates in particular, all of whom received stays last year, are worried about their fate: Bruce Ward, Jack Greene and Don Davis. The three are incarcerated for murders that took place in the late 1980s and early 1990s, and have been winding their way through the appeals process for decades. Ward is severely mentally ill, Greene’s mental competence has been called into question and Davis is an abuse survivor with ADHD and substance abuse issues. By some grounds, the three men may be ineligible for execution on the basis of their mental conditions.
On March 1, the state’s supply of vecuronium bromide — obtained, Pfizer says, under questionable circumstances — will expire, and in the coming months, other execution drugs will expire as well. This raises concerns that the state may consider another “conveyor belt of death,” lining up prisoners with pending executions and moving them swiftly through the system. Even if the state follows procedural protocols, hastening these deaths could leave multiple opportunities for injustice.
That’s especially worrisome since botched executions are a known issue, and drugs near expiry, coming from questionable sources, could pose an increased risk of error. Kenneth Williams, one of the men executed in 2017, was seen having “convulsions.”
Between watching medical staff fumble for veins and witnessing prisoners experience unexpected reactions to these medications, witnesses aren’t necessarily assured a view of the “peaceful” death implied by proponents of the lethal injection. Some prisoners experience agony that can last for hours.
Currently, Arkansas has no executions scheduled, but those counting down the clock are keeping a close eye on the state. Is Arkansas on the verge of pushing through another mass execution because it can’t obtain the drugs it needs to do its dirty work?