Arkansas Executions of Four Inmates Raises Questions about Death Penalty

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Jeffrey Johnson is a legal writer with a focus on personal injury. He has worked on personal injury and sovereign immunity litigation in addition to experience in family, estate, and criminal law. He earned a J.D. from the University of Baltimore and has worked in legal offices and non-profits in Maryland, Texas, and North Carolina. He has also earned an MFA in screenwriting from Chapman Univer...

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UPDATED: May 10, 2017

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Death Penalty A recent attempt by Arkansas officials to execute eight death row inmates in a two-week time-frame fueled another round of national debate on the constitutionality, practicality, and humanity of capital punishment. 

Arkansas’s efforts to carry out rapid-fire executions, which resulted in four of the eight inmates being put to death, highlighted concerns about the ongoing use of the death penalty held by both sides of the political aisle, and may signify a turning point in public and official consensus about ongoing use of the punishment.

Arkansas Pushes to Execute Eight Inmates in Two-Week Period

During the month of April, Arkansas law enforcement officials waged a protracted legal battle to carry out eight lethal injections over a two-week time frame. State officials attempted the rapid-fire executions because of questions regarding their supply of the drugs which make up the lethal injection cocktail — midazolam, which is a sedative that is intended to leave a prisoner unable to feel pain; vecuronium bromide, which halts a person’s breathing; and potassium chloride, which stops the heart.  

According to Gov. Asa Hutchinson (R), the supply of midazolam was scheduled to expire at the end of April, forcing his decision to quickly execute 8 of the state’s 34 death row inmates.

Hutchinson’s planned execution schedule was met with immediate criticism from a variety of parties who filed both state and federal lawsuits designed to halt all eight lethal injections. Objections were filed by attorneys representing the inmates and drug companies who opposed to the use of their product in capital punishment sentences, and although only four of the planned eight injections were stayed by the Arkansas courts, the success of some of the legal arguments could foretell an uncertain future for the ongoing use of the death penalty.

Legal Rulings Prevent Four of Arkansas’s Planned Eight Executions

A series of rulings regarding the Arkansas death penalty schedule from a number of different state and federal authorities during the last two weeks of April made the process complex, uncertain, and tense. Ultimately Arkansas was able to carry out four lethal injections over objections from the inmates’ attorneys, leaving the future of the remaining four unclear as the state is now out of usable midazolam. 

In the days following Hutchinson’s plan to execute eight inmates, a federal judge blocked one of them when the state parole board recommended the sentence be commuted to life in prison without parole. With appeals on that order destined to last longer than the state’s supply of midazolam, Arkansas officials focused in on the remaining seven, but quickly hit a snag when a state judge temporarily stayed all of them in a lawsuit filed by the drug distributor.

In a complaint filed by the McKesson Corporation, the company which ranks fifth on the list of Fortune 500 companies, the distributor agreed to sell the state of Arkansas ten boxes of vecuronium bromide under the false pretense that the drug would not be used in lethal injections. 

According to McKesson, Arkansas officials not only failed to disclose the drug’s intended purpose, but misled the distributor by saying the vecuronium bromide would only be used for a legitimate medical purpose. In a sweeping order issued in mid-April, Arkansas circuit judge Wendell Griffen granted McKesson’s motion to block the executions. However, his ruling was quickly overturned after he attended a death penalty protest only hours after he made the decision.

After the reversal of Judge Griffen’s decision, Arkansas officials still had to contend with separate motions filed by each of the seven inmates requesting stays of execution, citing either concerns about the constitutionality of the standard drug cocktail or concerns about the innocence of the condemned inmate. 

Three of the remaining seven successfully argued to have their executions blocked by the Arkansas Supreme Court. However, after a series of legal battles, Arkansas executed Ledell Lee on April 20th, Jack H. Jones Jr. and Marcel W. Williams back-to-back on April 24th, and finally Kenneth Williams on April 27th.  As the legal community, both inside and outside of the state of Arkansas, reflects on the hectic and tense two week period during which the four inmates were put to death, arguments have emerged which may shape the future of capital punishment jurisprudence in America.

Arkansas Death Penalty Turmoil Leaves Lasting Impact

The Arkansas death penalty cases which dramatically played out during the last few weeks of April leave attorneys, judges, legislators, legal scholars, and the American public with a lot to digest as questions regarding the continued use of the death penalty penetrate deeper into our collective discourse. 

Arkansas’ rapid-fire executions renewed modern debate regarding the constitutionality of lethal injections, which, after botched attempts in Oklahoma, Ohio, Arizona, and Alabama, has been the subject of intense scrutiny as a potential violation of the 8th Amendment’s prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment. Although Gov. Hutchinson denies any problems with the four executions, witness accounts of Kenneth Williams’s punishment indicate that prior concerns about the drugs causing pain and suffering may have arisen again.

Beyond the constitutional issue, the Arkansas execution saga witnessed the first successful challenge to the use of an element of the standard cocktail by a company which distributes the drug. With well-documented concerns among death penalty states about increasing difficulty in finding the necessary lethal injection drugs, the legal battle fought by a large drug distributor may make an already uphill climb to acquire the drug cocktail even more challenging. 

Ultimately, as support for the death penalty decreases nationwide, the combined effect of ethical concerns and practical limitations which were on display in Arkansas may signal the beginning of the end of capital punishment in America.

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