Schedule, Secrecy Give Federal Judge, Condemned Men Pause

Apr 15, 2017
Originally published on June 27, 2017 10:31 am

A federal judge in Little Rock has stayed the executions of eight inmates scheduled this month. The ruling came down Saturday morning granting a preliminary injunction in the case.

The inmates had argued the state’s lethal injection protocol creates a risk of severe pain, and federal Judge Kristine Baker agreed, while expressing regret for the further delay caused to families of the inmates’ victims.

Pulaski County Circuit Court Judge Wendell Griffen put a separate stay on the use of one of the execution drugs Friday, after a manufacturer filed suit to block its use.  Two other inmates had also received separate individual stays.

That decision by Griffen stirred a wave of consternation and threats on social media from state lawmakers and conservatives bothered that, just moments before Griffen's decision, the judge was photographed making a singularly dramatic protest at the gates of the Governor's Mansion.

The state was trying to execute all eight inmates before the supply of one of its drugs expired at the end of the month. It’s been 12 years since Arkansas has performed an execution.

Lawyers for the state told the court it would be in the public interest to execute before Arkansas’s drugs expire. And they say inmates’ claims about possible errors were speculative. Arkansas Solicitor General Lee Rudofsky said the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled for the use of a three-drug lethal injection protocol.

The inmates’ lawsuit also argued rushing execution will lead to stress and error. Department of Correction officials testified about their plans and qualifications to carrying out up to eight executions in 11 days.

Expert witnesses in a federal hearing this week disagreed over whether the state’s drug cocktail is a cruel and unusual punishment.

Arkansas’s protocol calls for a 500 mg dose of midazolam, much higher than the 10-20 mg average dose in a clinical setting, followed by vecuronium bromide, a paralytic that hinders breathing, and potassium chloride, which stops the heart.

An anesthesiologist who testified on behalf of the condemned men, Joel B. Zivot of Emory University in Atlanta, said midazolam won’t prevent such a death from being terrifying and painful. In fact, he said, it could make it more acute.

The state's witness, Dr. Daniel Buffington, a doctor of pharmacology from Florida, disagreed. He said midazolam has short term powers to anesthetize.  

Earlier this month, the Sixth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled against Ohio’s use of midazolam in its execution protocol. 

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