Despite Legal Fights, Arkansas Pushes To Carry Out Delayed Executions

Apr 17, 2017
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Arkansas prison officials are preparing to execute an inmate tonight even though the courts have told them to hold off. The inmate would be the first of eight people the state wants to put to death this month. It's an unprecedented number, and the courts have questioned whether it's constitutional. Arkansas Public Media's Sarah Whites-Koditschek reports.

SARAH WHITES-KODITSCHEK, BYLINE: Arkansas hasn't executed anyone since 2005, and now the state is rushing to put to death as many as eight men before the end of the month. That's when one of the lethal injection drugs expires. There've been a flurry of court rulings that have stopped the executions for now. Judges have granted delays because of the pace of executions, access to legal counsel and about one of the drugs, midazolam. There's concern it's not effective. Julie Vandiver is an attorney for the inmates.

JULIE VANDIVER: It will do nothing to prevent the prisoners from experiencing the pain sensations and the sensation of suffocation from the second and third drugs in the protocol.

WHITES-KODITSCHEK: Arkansas's Attorney General Leslie Rutledge says each of these convicted men carried out horrific crimes. She spoke today on Fox News.

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LESLIE RUTLEDGE: These families have been waiting since 1990, 1995, 1996 to see justice carried out in each of these cases. Again, these are individuals who are convicted of rape, murder.

WHITES-KODITSCHEK: Robert Dunham is with the Death Penalty Information Center. He says the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled on previous lethal injection cases and likely will for these, but there's new information about how the drugs work.

ROBERT DUNHAM: There is more known now about midazolam. There has been experience with botched executions since the Oklahoma case was ruled on by the U.S. Supreme Court. And so the factual background of this issue is very, very different.

WHITES-KODITSCHEK: The Oklahoma case refers to a 2015 Supreme Court decision saying the three-drug cocktail did not constitute cruel and unusual punishment. Since then, federal appeals courts have split on that issue. Despite the legal limbo, Arkansas Department of Correction director Wendy Kelley says her staff is preparing to go ahead with an execution tonight in case the courts overturn the stay. Kelley says inmate Don Davis has already been moved to a waiting cell nearby.

WENDY KELLEY: The department stands ready to carry out the sentences of the court should the attorney general get the legal challenges resolved. But everything that we're doing today is the same thing we'd be doing if the stays weren't in place at this point.

WHITES-KODITSCHEK: Arkansas officials say they'll not be able to acquire any more lethal injection drugs once their current supply expires at the end of the month. For NPR News, I'm Sarah Whites-Koditschek in Little Rock. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.