April 14, 2017 – The US state of Arkansas plans to execute seven men currently on death row in a 10-day span before the end of the month, in a flurry of state-sanctioned killings unseen in the modern history of the US death penalty.
The executions – the first in Arkansas in 12 years – are being rushed through before the expiration date in May for the state’s supply of midazolam, a controversial sedative that is one of three drugs used in lethal injections. State officials do not know when they will be able to obtain a new supply of midazolam.
Don Davis and Bruce Ward are scheduled to be put to death on April 17, Stacey Johnson and Ledell Lee three days later, followed by Marcel Williams and Jack Jones on April 24, and Kenneth Williams on April 27. The men make up 20 percent of Arkansas’ entire death row population.
Lawyers for the inmates have a case before a federal judge seeking to block the executions, contending that such hasty executions risk mistakes. History bears them out: in April 2014, the last time a state tried to perform a double execution on the same day, it ended in disaster, when Oklahoma botched the execution of Clayton Locket. It took more than 40 minutes for him to die. Human Rights Watch called that execution “nothing less than state-sanctioned torture.” Even under “normal” circumstances, midazolam has been linked to botched executions in Alabama, Arizona, and Ohio.
Nineteen US states have abolished the death penalty, including seven in the past seven years. Another 12 have the death penalty on their books but haven’t executed anyone in at least a decade. Since 1973, 157 prisoners have been released from death rows in the US after evidence was presented of their innocence, and at least 20 death-row inmates have been put to death, then later discovered to be likely innocent. According to one study, 88 percent of criminologists polled said the death penalty was not a deterrent to murder.
The death penalty is widely rejected by rights-respecting democracies around the world, including every country in Europe except for Belarus. Human Rights Watch opposes capital punishment in all cases because of its inherent cruelty and finality. It is inevitably and universally plagued with arbitrariness, prejudice, and error.
Arkansas Governor Asa Hutchison should commute these planned executions and instead push to abolish the death penalty in his state. Otherwise, he will risk another botched execution from a controversial drug, and perpetuate a barbaric policy that rejects the dignity of human life.
W. Paul Smith, Coordinator, U.S. Program, Human Rights Watch