Kelly P. Kissel/AP
Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson talks with a reporter at the Governor's Mansion in Little Rock Thursday. The governor met with reporters to discuss a series of seven upcoming executions in 11 days, an unprecedented schedule in the US modern death penalty era.

Amid Arkansas death penalty debate, concern for the executioners

Arkansas is planning to execute seven prisoners in 11 days starting Monday. This week, 23 former corrections officials pleaded with the governor to reconsider, warning that participating in executions can exact a 'severe toll on corrections officers’ well-being.'

[Update: On Friday evening, an Arkansas circuit judge temporarily blocked the use of one of the state's lethal injection drugs until further notice. Also on Friday, the state supreme court stayed the execution for Bruce Ward, so that his attorneys can present arguments about his mental competence.]

The killers have no names and no faces – at least officially.

Behind a curtain on Monday, barring a last-minute stay, two Arkansas corrections staffers will each plunge a cocktail of drugs through a tube, not knowing which of the two doses will be lethal. But at the end, death row inmate Bruce Ward will be dead. A team of trained volunteers will carry his body away and prepare it for burial. And then they will do it again, six more times over the next 10 days, an unprecedented schedule in modern US death penalty history.

To some, including Republican Gov. Asa Hutchinson, carrying out the death penalty is a duty required by law and the jury judgment of fellow citizens. Critics say the process resembles the doings of a Wild West hanging judge, shrouded in secrecy. But the complex and grim task that faces a small “special operations force” inside the Cummins Unit in Gould, Ark., has also pulled part of the curtain away.

Courts are still hearing motions to block the executions – including from the makers of the drugs themselves. And a judge already has stayed the execution of an eighth prisoner. But one group urging a rethinking of the assembly-line nature of the schedule comes from within the corrections system itself: Those with firsthand knowledge of what it means to carry out an execution.

This week, 23 former corrections officials pleaded with Hutchinson to reconsider, warning that participating in executions can exact a “severe toll on corrections officers’ well-being,” and that rapid executions could “needlessly exacerbate the strain and stress placed on these officers.”

That notion that execution team members may also be unintended victims, experts say, is one quiet reason behind the waning of the death penalty. Last year saw the US drop out of the Top 5 execution countries, a list topped by China, Iran, and Saudi Arabia, according to Amnesty International’s annual report.

But the task set before the special operations team in Gould is also testing the extent to which America’s “good soldiers” – those who carry out capital punishment for the state – are also forgotten soldiers.

Given recent alarms from within the corrections system itself, concern for the well-being of executioners “is beginning to catch some traction,” says Frank Thompson, former superintendent of the Oregon State Penitentiary. In the mid-1990s, he oversaw two executions in a span of 18 months. Officials, he says, are realizing that “the public is asking us to create another class of victims in order to address the needs of people who have already been victimized. And there is no calculus that makes any sense of that.”

Americans ambivalent about death penalty

The execution schedule comes at a crossroads for the death penalty in the US.

Lethal injection drugs have become increasingly hard to find – a key one expiring at the end of April is the reason for Arkansas’ hurried schedule. As the debate goes on, two policy strands have emerged. One is to commute, as most of the country does, sentences to life without parole. The other is to use technology – as Oklahoma has in developing a new kind of gas chamber – in an effort to make death less dramatic.

Geographically, the actual mechanics have quieted in most parts of the country. Texas and Georgia carried out 80 percent of the 20 executions that took place last year. The percentage of Americans that favor the death penalty has dropped by seven points since March 2015, to the lowest level in more than 40 years.

But Americans remain ambivalent about doing away with capital punishment entirely. In November, voters in California and Oklahoma passed resolutions in favor of the keeping death penalty. In Nebraska, voters overturned a death penalty moratorium passed by the legislature.   

Such gaps between theory and practice have made the mechanics of execution – including the human impacts – stand out in new ways.

Monday’s execution would be the state’s first in 12 years. Attorneys are arguing that the schedule may lead to violations of the Eight Amendment’s ban on cruel and unusual punishment, if there are mistakes by a stressed crew using a concoction tied to botched executions in recent years.

“Arkansas is really going from zero to seven in 10 days – a complete and total turnaround change of pace,” says Megan McCracken, the Eighth Amendment Resource Counsel with the University of California, Berkeley, School of Law’s Death Penalty Clinic. “This is going to be either a new team or a team that hasn’t performed an execution in a very long time. It’s just a lot. It’s a new protocol, new drugs – there’s nothing known about the training, qualification, and competence of the execution team. That raises a lot of questions, including very humane concerns about the stress and pressure” on the execution team.

Protections for execution team

There are protections for execution team members. They are allowed to opt out without question, and some do. They are paid overtime and offered counseling.

In Arkansas, the governor’s office has pushed back on the idea that the pace could harm the team.

“This is less stressful for the staff,” J.R. Davis, the governor's spokesman, told NBC News. “They're setting it up for one night at a time. It's the same protocol that will be used. It's more efficient and less stressful and will lead to fewer mistakes.”

Execution team members – the vast majority of whom live in the Bible Belt – often find solace in the Bible, including Matthew 22:22: “Render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s,” meaning to uphold the law, experts say.

And like soldiers, they are trained to kill in specific circumstances on behalf of public safety. In that way, they “can more morally and ethically think about what they are doing more than a person who is caught up in the emotionalism of it all,” says Mr. Thompson.

Also, “they don’t want it said in the industry, among their peers, that, ‘We don’t think we can do this,’ ” says Thompson. “They’re going to look at each other, stick their chest out, take a deep breath and say, ‘Hell, yeah, we can do it, boss.’  And let’s remember that there are many good people who think society has no other choices. That’s what makes this an issue that impacts everybody.”

The way teams are structured also raises the question, “Is anyone really solely responsible for it?” says Dale Baich, a capital defense attorney in Arizona, who has witnessed 13 executions including the nearly two-hour-long death of Joseph Woods in 2014. “You have the restraint team, and then you have the escort team, the IV team – the special operations team, the guys who push the plungers – and then you have someone giving them an order to do it. They really try to compartmentalize it, so that no one person feels the weight.”

But those with personal execution experience question whether such attempts are effective in eliminating the emotional toll in what death certificates ultimately call “lethal homicide.” Some 33 percent of corrections workers endure some form of post-traumatic stress disorder, says Thompson, the former Oregon warden.

“The human tendency is to reach out to a fellow in dire straits with at least a drink of water,” says Father Lawrence Hummer of St. Mary Catholic Church in Chillicothe, Ohio, who pastored double murderer Dennis McGuire before witnessing Mr. McGuire’s botched execution in 2014. He called witnessing an execution "a brutal experience." “People that go through this will always have that hole in their lives that will make peace elusive. That’s why, at its core, [the Arkansas death schedule] is about all the other human beings that are connected with it – the people administering the drugs, the guards, whatever chaplain support is there, the people who prepare the body, the people who drive the body away.”

'Executions should not be scheduled within seven calendar days'

Such concerns have historically stayed in the background of the death penalty debate. But Arkansas has changed that, given what happened three years ago in Oklahoma. Using the same sedative that is set to expire, the state failed to quickly kill Clayton Lockett, who woke up in the middle of the procedure. An internal investigation found that staff stress was high because two executions had been scheduled on the same day. The second execution was quickly canceled.

The report ultimately found that “due to manpower and facility concerns, executions should not be scheduled within seven calendar days of each other.”

Stephen B. Thornton /The Arkansas Democrat-Gazette via AP
Anti-death penalty supporter Randy Gardner, left, wipes away a tear moments after Abraham Bonowitz, left, read on his phone the 11:45pm Supreme Court decision to halt the execution in their taped off "protest corral" outside the Varner Unit late Monday, April 17, 2017 near Varner, Arkansas.

That finding has put the Arkansas team in a tough bind.

“Many times [execution team members] are caught up in wanting to support the administration; oftentimes they are people who are on both sides of the fence – good soldiers who volunteer to take on conflict they may or may not believe in – and they get caught up in groupthink,” says Thompson. “Their training – they depend on one another, they’re dedicated, loyal, and respected employees – those are reasons they’re accepted into this machinery of death. These officers are asked to take on a charge where you can have botched executions and things going awry, and a human being writhing in pain ... and all of a sudden the vulnerability is exposed.”

Though the pace of the Arkansas schedule would set a record in the modern death penalty era, officials at the death chamber in Huntsville, Texas, executed three men on consecutive days in 2000. Arkansas also has twice carried out three executions in three days, once in 1994 and in 1997.

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