A federal judge in Arkansas blocked the execution of eight inmates expected to be killed over a period of 11 days. The state is racing against the clock to beat the expiration date of a lethal injection drug, and planned to begin executions Monday (April 17), reports NBC News.
But U.S. District Judge Kristine Baker issued an injunction Saturday (April 15), amid arguments that the lethal injection cocktail may not work, and could therefore amount to “cruel and unusual punishment.”
“The state of Arkansas does not intend to torture plaintiffs to death,” Baker wrote in her 101-page decision. “However, the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition of cruel and unusual punishment is not limited to inherently barbaric punishments. A condemned prisoner can successfully challenge the method of his or her execution by showing that the state’s method ‘creates a demonstrated risk of severe pain’ and ‘the risk is substantial when compared to the known and available alternatives.'”
The inmates are challenging the planned execution method, and claim that the scheduling of back-to-back executions widen the probability of potential mistakes.
The anesthetic midazolam — which is used to render inmates unconscious before they are injected with vercuronium bromide to suppress breathing, and finally potassium chloride to stop the heart — has botched executions before, defense lawyers pointed out.
The state’s drug supply is set to expire at the end of April. “The unnecessarily compressed execution schedule using the risky drug midazolam denies prisoners their right to be free from the risk of torture,” said lawyer John C. Williams. ”We are calling on state officials to accept the federal court’s decision, cancel the frantic execution schedule, and propose a legal and humane method to carry out its executions.”
According to The Guardian, the condemned inmates have all been convicted of murder, with some suffering from intellectual disabilities, bipolar disorder and paranoid schizophrenia.
Arkansas Attorney General Leslie Rutledge is planning to appeal Baker’s decision. “It is unfortunate that a U.S. district judge has chosen to side with the convicted prisoners in one of their many last-minute attempts to delay justice,” Judd Deere, a spokesman for Rutledge said in a statement. “This decision is significantly out of step with precedent from the Eighth Circuit and the U.S. Supreme Court.”
Baker’s ruling added to a list of roadblocks for the state, following a stay of execution of another inmate, 24 hours earlier. Additionally, Judge Wendell Griffen of the Pulaski County Circuit Court issued a restraining order on forthcoming executions, after a drug supplier filed a complaint accusing the Arkansas Department of Corrections of failing to disclose the “intended purpose” upon purchasing 10 boxes of the drug, vecuronium bromide. The complaint was later dropped with the company noting that the restraining order was no longer needed after Baker’s order.
While the state hasn’t carried out an execution since 2005, Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson said in a statement that he was “fully aware” that scheduling the eight executions would “trigger both the individual clemency hearings and separate court reviews on varying claims by the death row inmates.”
“I understand how difficult this is on the victims’ families, and my heart goes out to them as they once again deal with the continued court review,” the Republican governor explained. “However, the last minute court reviews are all part of the difficult process of death penalty cases.”