Arkansas to revive lethal injections soon, says governor

Public support for the death penalty is on the decline nationally. But Arkansas could begin scheduling new executions before the end of the year.

Danny Johnston/AP/File
Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson (r.) answers reporters' questions at the Arkansas state Capitol in 2015.

Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson said on Wednesday that he hoped to start scheduling execution dates for death row inmates before the end of the year, in a move toward the state's first execution in over a decade.

"I certainly would expect to set dates before January, absolutely," Governor Hutchinson, a Republican, told reporters by phone from Europe, where he was on a trade mission. "It's been way too long and painful for the victims and their families, so we would set the dates without any undue delay."

Capital punishment by lethal injection is legal in Arkansas, but challenges to the law have tied up authorities’ efforts to press forward with executions for the 34 inmates currently on death row there. Similar legal challenges have held up executions in several other states since a 2014 botched execution in Oklahoma raised public concerns around the potential for cruel and unusual punishment. 

Execution drugs have also become more difficult for death penalty states to obtain, as pharmaceutical companies have become reluctant to supply them. In effort to find alternative drugs, several states have sought replacement drug cocktails, which have come under scrutiny.

In Arkansas, the latest challenge involved the state’s secrecy law, which conceals the identities of makers and sellers of execution drug suppliers. A group of death row inmates argued that the law violated a previous agreement to share information and that shielding the drugs’ contents from public scrutiny could lead to cruel and unusual punishment.

In June, the Arkansas state Supreme Court Arkansas state Supreme Court upheld the secrecy law in a 4-3 decision, overruling a lower court’s decision, as The Christian Science Monitor reported at the time. In the majority opinion, judges wrote that the lower court had “erred in ruling that public access to the identity of the supplier of the three drugs” used in lethal injections would “positively enhance the functioning of executions in Arkansas.”

"As has been well documented, disclosing the information is actually detrimental to the process,” the judges wrote.

Another challenge to lethal injections in the state – this one aimed at the protocol used in carrying them out – was also struck down in 2015 by a 4-3 ruling by the Arkansas Supreme Court. Believing the path cleared for future executions, Hutchinson set dates for eight inmates, while authorities paid $25,000 for supplies of the three drugs.

The resolution to the latest litigation comes just days before the June 30 expiration date of one of those drugs, a paralytic known as vecuronium bromide. The Arkansas department of correction said on Tuesday that it had received a new supply of the drug, with an expiration date of March 1, 2018. And a spokesman for the department said that the state’s supply of the other two drugs – midazolam and potassium bromide – doesn’t expire until January 2017 and April 2017, respectively.

Laws promoting secrecy around drugs used in executions have sprung up in several states where the death penalty is legal. The secrecy laws come largely in reaction to manufacturers’ growing reluctance to sell their products for that purpose – itself a decision made because of ethical qualms as well as potential legal ramifications.

In May, The New York Times reported that Pfizer would adopt controls on its products designed to keep them from being used in executions, saying it “strongly objects to the use of its products as lethal injections for capital punishment.”

Evangelical groups, long a supporter of the death penalty, have also begun to change their tune. In 2015, the 45,000-church National Association of Evangelicals passed a resolution acknowledging growing reservations among its members, as the Monitor reported.

That reflects a shift over the decades in how Americans view the death penalty, especially among self-identified Democrats and Independents. last year, the Pew Center found that 56 percent favored the death penalty for people convicted of murder, a figure that stayed well up in the seventieth percentile through the 1980s and 1990s.

This report contains material by the Associated Press.

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