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Legal Chaos in Arkansas as Judges Halt State Plan to Carry Out Unprecedented Spate of Executions

Arkansas’s plan to carry out an unprecedented series of executions has been thrown into chaos.

Arkansas’s plan to carry out an unprecedented series of executions has been thrown into chaos, after judges ruled to temporarily halt the state’s plan. Hundreds of death penalty opponents rallied at the State Capitol in Little Rock on Friday, as state Judge Wendell Griffen issued a temporary stay of the executions over concerns the state used false pretenses to obtain the drug vecuronium bromide, which is one of a cocktail of drugs slated to be used in the executions. The following day, federal Judge Kristine Baker also temporarily blocked the state’s execution plans from proceeding over concerns about another one of the execution drugs: the sedative midazolam. Arkansas is appealing the rulings. If Arkansas prevails, it’s slated to begin the executions today.


This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: The state of Arkansas’s plans to carry out an unprecedented series of executions has been thrown into chaos, after judges ruled to temporarily halt the state’s plan. On Friday, state Judge Wendell Griffen issued a temporary restraining order halting the executions over concerns the state used false pretenses to obtain the drug vecuronium bromide, which is one of a cocktail of drugs slated to be used in the executions. The following day, federal Judge Kristine Baker also temporarily blocked the state’s execution plans from proceeding over concerns about another one of the execution drugs, the sedative midazolam, which has been linked to painful botched executions in other states. Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor has described the drug’s use as, quote, “the chemical equivalent of being burned at the stake.” Arkansas is appealing the rulings.

AMY GOODMAN: If Arkansas prevails, it’s slated to begin executions today. In total, Arkansas had planned to execute eight prisoners this month, in its rush to carry out the executions before the state’s supply of midazolam expires. No state has ever sent as many prisoners to the death chamber in as short a period of time.

On Good Friday, hundreds of death penalty opponents rallied at the State Capitol, Little Rock, called on Republican Governor Asa Hutchinson to stop the executions. This is actor Johnny Depp.

JOHNNY DEPP: People suffer, and they seize, and they — and it’s 15 ampoules in two-and-a-half, three hours of utter agony and burning. … For people’s egos, for people’s political ambitions, for anything under the sun. There’s a wrong thing to do, and there’s a right thing to do. The right thing must be done.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Meanwhile, Arkansas Republican Governor Asa Hutchinson has continued — is continuing to defend his state’s execution plans, despite mounting criticism and legal challenges.

GOV. ASA HUTCHINSON: There’s always going to be last-minute tests. But, in essence, all of these have had reviews by the courts, from the state court, the federal court, to the United States Supreme Court, and all of the appeals have exhausted. It’s been a 25-year nightmare for the victims that have had to deal with this. And now it’s time for that justice to be carried out. And so I expect that to happen, but you don’t know with the court review that’s ongoing.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, for more, we’re joined by three guests. In Little Rock, Arkansas, Lee Short is with us, criminal defense attorney involved in the lawsuits that won the stay over the weekend. He’s representing death row prisoner Ledell Lee. And we’re also joined by Furonda Brasfield, executive director of Arkansas Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty, in Little Rock. Here in New York City, we’re joined by Damien Echols, who was freed from Arkansas death row in 2011. Over the weekend, he returned to Arkansas to protest the state’s rapid-succession execution plans. Echols was on death row for — with many of the men the state plans to send to the death chamber. He was one of the West Memphis Three, the young men in West Memphis, Arkansas, who were imprisoned for the 1993 slayings of three 8-year-old boys after an investigation largely fueled by unsubstantiated rumors of a Satanic ritual. He ultimately was freed.

We welcome you all to Democracy Now! Lee Short, let’s begin with you. You are a lawyer for one of the prisoners slated to be killed, involved in the lawsuits that led to the stays of execution, at least for a few days. Explain what you sued over.

LEE SHORT: There were numerous issues in the complaint. The primary issue everyone’s aware of is the state’s use of — or expected use of midazolam and the problems associated with it in other executions and its inability to do essentially what it’s prescribed to do in this case. There’s other issues inside the complaint, stemming from the execution protocol and its failure to allow for multiple attorneys to witness the execution, to allow for any last-minute phone calls that need to be made if there’s a problem. There’s also a claim that the evolving standards of decency would render this an Eighth Amendment violation based on the schedule, having eight executions in 11 days, as well as the use of midazolam.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And, Damien Echols, you served time, when you were on death row, with all of these men. Could you talk about them and life on death row?

DAMIEN ECHOLS: Absolutely. Some of these guys I knew for as long as 18 years, you know, almost the entire time that I was on death row. Others came in later. But these are men — you know, I always — I try to explain to people that are, you know, just realizing what’s going on in the state that these aren’t people that, you know, I read about in newspapers or saw on TV or something like that. These are people that I knew on a personal, everyday basis. You know, these are people that have an IQ of 70. These are people that are — some of them are mentally insane. A couple of them are believed to be innocent. So, there’s a very good chance that if the state does force these executions through, which they’re still trying to do right now — even though there’s a stay, they’re still trying to push them through — there’s a very good chance that they will be executing innocent people, as well as mentally handicapped people.

AMY GOODMAN: You wear sunglasses because?

DAMIEN ECHOLS: My vision — I started losing my vision while I was in prison, for two reasons. One is, I was in solitary confinement for the last eight years that I was in, and I didn’t see sunlight for that entire time. The other reason is because the same thing happens to people that happen to horses. Like if you put a horse in a stall and never take it out, its ability to shift its eye focus gradually diminishes over time. And the same thing happened to me. Without these glasses, I can see perhaps a couple of inches in front of my face.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And, Furonda Brasfield of the Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty, the significance of what Arkansas is trying to do — so many executions in such a short period of time, unprecedented in the country’s history?

FURONDA BRASFIELD: Absolutely. This is unprecedented in this country’s history. And this is a horrible way for Arkansas to again make history. I talk to people from all over the world about this, and what people know about Arkansas is the Little Rock Nine and our horrible moment in history where we did not want to integrate our schools. And now people are talking about the Little Rock Eight in 10, where Arkansas is attempting to kill eight, and now seven, and then six, men within the matter of 10 days. And this is just a horrible way for us to go down in history.

AMY GOODMAN: Can you talk about the drug cocktail that is being used and the reason that all of these men are slated to be executed so fast? Because the drug will expire? Now, would that mean that it would kill them, or would it mean it wouldn’t kill them?

LEE SHORT: I’m sorry, I didn’t catch that. Your question was?

AMY GOODMAN: If you could explain — with midazolam expiring, that’s why they’re rushing all these executions, so they could get them in before the drug’s [expiration] date.


AMY GOODMAN: Does that mean the drug would kill them, or it wouldn’t kill them, after it expired?

LEE SHORT: And the problem is essentially that they’re going to feel — they’re going to feel the effects of the other drugs, because midazolam is not going to do what it’s supposed to do. Essentially, it’s not an analgesic. It can’t induce general anesthesia, which is what it’s supposed to do. It’s supposed to make sure that the inmates don’t feel pain when the other drugs enter their system. And it just doesn’t have the capability to do that. It’s not — its nature is not to do that, in fact. And so, the state of Arkansas decided, “Well, maybe if we just give them a whole, whole lot of it, it can do something that it’s not supposed to do.” But that’s just not going to happen. And I think the expert testimony in Arkansas, as well as in Ohio, made it very clear that that’s not going to work. The problem — the reason the state’s rushing to use it is obviously because they don’t feel that they are going to be able to get midazolam or any other proper drugs in the future. Now, they’ve made that claim many, many times before, and they’ve always found a way to get the drugs. So, there’s certainly some skepticism as to whether that’s a valid claim by the state.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: I want to turn to a recent comment by Robert Dunham of the Death Penalty Information Center.

ROBERT DUNHAM: Arkansas has a supply of the drug midazolam. That supply expires on April 30th. Think of it as a — if you were shopping in the supermarket, and there’s a use-by date. Well, what Arkansas has essentially done is taken the concept of the use-by date and converted it to a kill-by date.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: That was — Furonda Brasfield, your response?

FURONDA BRASFIELD: Sure. This is just another in a long line of issues and problems with the drugs that the state is planning to use for execution. We have passed a secrecy law here in the state of Arkansas that cloaks all of this in secrecy. Just this weekend, a claim from a drug manufacturing company has come in saying, “The state of Arkansas has obtained our drugs in an unethical, possibly illegal way, and they shouldn’t have them to use for executions.” So this is just another in one after another after another issues with these drugs and with the way that Arkansas is planning to try to carry these executions out. I think I heard in the hearing that the state is trying to equate expiration dates with “Oh, we can — it’s OK. We can use the drugs after expiration dates. They’re just advisory dates.” So, I’m wondering how far our state will go to try to kill these men, and what unethical means that — what we will take to do that.

AMY GOODMAN: Damien Echols, you went back to Arkansas for the protest this weekend.


AMY GOODMAN: Were you nervous going back to the state that had held you? You were on death row for 18 years?

DAMIEN ECHOLS: Eighteen years and 76 days. And going back was probably perhaps the second most traumatic thing I’ve ever expressed in my life, after being sent to death row. Two weeks before I went, I started having panic attacks. You know, when Furonda approached us and asked me to come, I immediately — my first response is “I can’t do this. I can’t go back there. This is where these people tried to murder me.” And — but then I would think, you know, “I can’t just let them kill these guys without ever raising a hand, because that’s the kind of thing you would remember for the rest of your life.” So I would go back and forth. I would tell Lorri — I would tell my wife — every day, I would say, “OK, we’ve got to do this. I’ve got to go back.” And every night, I would start having the panic attacks, feel like I was having a heart attack, and I would say, “I can’t do it. I can’t go back.” And then, finally, I just realized, I’ve got to do this. I still don’t know if I would have been able to do it if Johnny wouldn’t have went back with me. He was a huge security blanket and source of comfort.

AMY GOODMAN: Johnny Depp?

DAMIEN ECHOLS: Johnny Depp, yeah.

AMY GOODMAN: How did he get involved?

DAMIEN ECHOLS: He, initially, years ago, took an interest in my case and did everything he could to help out, while the state was trying to execute me. And over that time, we became really close friends. And this time, I told him — you know, I just texted him and said, “They’re about to kill these guys. Would you please help me bring some attention to this, in hopes of putting a stop to it?” And he said, “Absolutely. I’ll be there.”

AMY GOODMAN: Damien, can you briefly tell us your story?

DAMIEN ECHOLS: In 1993, I was convicted of three counts of capital murder, when three 8-year-old boys were found mutilated in West Memphis, Arkansas. I sat on death row for years. Keep in mind, in 1993, they could not do the same kind of DNA testing they can do now. So I sat there for years before they could do the DNA testing. After the DNA testing came out, that excluded me and the other two men they had convicted of the crime from the crime scene, and instead it implicated a family member, I still sat on death row for two more years, while the state of Arkansas tried to figure out how they could cover this up and kill me anyway.

AMY GOODMAN: And how did you get off, ultimately?

DAMIEN ECHOLS: It was ultimately people like Johnny, people like Eddie Vedder, people like Peter Jackson, people like Joe Berlinger, who made a documentary — or three documentaries, actually, about the case. The only thing they cared about was the fact that people in the outside world, outside of Arkansas, was paying attention to what they were doing. You know, people think that just because you have evidence that you’re innocent, you’re going to get off of death row. But in actuality, that’s only 50 percent of the fight. The other 50 percent is getting the outside world to care and take notice.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And, Lee Short, what happens from this point on, in terms of the legal challenges to the planned executions?

LEE SHORT: Well, there’s a number of legal challenges, and I think the one that you’re probably speaking most directly to is the ruling from Judge Baker that came down recently. We filed our response to the state’s motion to vacate the stay of execution in the preliminary injunction. We filed that response at 1:00 this morning. We expect the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals to rule sometime today. We expect that they will rule in time to allow either side to then ask the US Supreme Court to decide the issue. So, certainly, it’s far from over. If we unfortunately are not successful today, the Department of Corrections is moving forward with the executions planned for today.

AMY GOODMAN: And, Furonda Brasfield, the organizing that you’re doing on the ground, getting Damien to come back, Johnny Depp, the response to it in Arkansas? And have you spoken directly to Asa Hutchison, the governor?

FURONDA BRASFIELD: Our job at the Arkansas Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty — our job in all of this is to educate the public. You know, there are far too many people, especially Arkansans, that don’t know the implications of the death penalty, and they don’t even know that this is happening. So we are on the ground every day, getting this message out, asking people to call on the governor, to call on other public officials to call on the governor, to talk to Attorney General Rutledge, so that they can know how Arkansans feel about this issue.

AMY GOODMAN: We want to thank you all for being with us. And, Damien, we’d like to ask you to stay after the broadcast, and we’ll continue our conversation, and we’ll post it in our web exclusive section at Lee Short, one of the attorneys who filed the lawsuit that has prevented the execution of the eight men, at least for now, before the expiration of the drug midazolam. Furonda Brasfield, Arkansas Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty. And Damien Echols, freed from death row in Arkansas in 2011, one of the Memphis Three, 18 years on death row.

This is Democracy Now! We’ll be back in a minute and talk about what’s taken place in Turkey. Stay with us.

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