Ten days, eight murders. That’s the plan in the works for the state of Arkansas.
Faced with mounting international sanctions on the export of any products used for the purpose of executions, death-rows across the United States have been forced to become grotesquely creative. They’ve tried executions using just a single dose of the sedative pentobarbital, only to discover that the death process is horribly long—20 minutes to a half hour. It’s the same drug that is used to euthanize animals in the United States, but when it is carried out on your elderly cat, protocol mandates that the animal is unconscious before the lethal injection; the state of California actually considers the injection of an animal with pentobarbital while still awake a crime. The same consideration, unsurprisingly, is not extended towards death row inmates.
Other states are trying to move away from the increasingly hard-to-obtain lethal injection drugs, with bills ranging from reinstating the firing squad (Utah), the electric chair (Tennessee) to bills advocating for the use of a gas chamber (Mississippi, Oklahoma.) Last month, Arizona proposed that prisoners and their advocates bring their own pentobarbital or sodium pentothal to the death chamber, to ensure a smooth execution. And now Arkansas has taken up a rather ambitious plan: they will kill eight men — four black, four white — in the span of 10 days.
Like many states, Arkansas uses a three-drug cocktail to execute its inmates: the sedative midazolam (best known for its star role in multiple botched executions in recent years), vecuronium bromide to stop breathing, and then potassium chloride to stop the heart.
On Monday, the Arkansas Department of Corrections spokesman told reporters that the state had just received 100 vials of potassium chloride, and thanks to a law upheld by the Arkansas Supreme Court last year, they don’t have to disclose anything about where they got the drugs, or how much they paid for them. This lack of transparency can have disastrous consequences. In 2012, South Dakota executed Eric Robert with a dose of pentobarbital that had been produced by a compounding pharmacy, a service which allows drugs to be made up to order, permitting the buyer to bypass mainstream pharmaceutical suppliers which face stricter regulation. Eric’s eyes opened during the lethal injection itself, a sign that the drug was not working in the way that it was intended. An investigation later revealed that the batch of pentobarbital used to kill him had been contaminated with fungus.
While we don’t know where Arkansas obtained their drugs, what we do know is that the state will run out of midazolam in April, meaning they have just weeks left to put the drugs to use in tandem. Eight state murders in 10 days.
... it’s easier to think of ourselves as a civilized country when death comes from a gloved hand... instead of a bloodied body riddled with bullet holes.
Why isn’t there more consistent outrage about the death penalty continuing to exist in America? Perhaps it’s because we’re remarkably disconnected from the process, which is hugely lacking in transparency. In the United States, executions are open only to the press (no cameras) and a few select witnesses (usually family of the convicted and family of the victim). For the rest of us, the vague contours and opposing narratives of the event are only available the next day in the news. Would more of us care about ending the death penalty if CNN aired an execution by firing squad? Would we vote to uphold the death penalty if we were subjected to the ragged gasps of an inmate in the gas chamber on NPR?
In 2015, a poll done by YouGov showed that the majority of Americans believe lethal injection to be the only form of execution that is not cruel and unusual. Perhaps this is because it’s easier to think of ourselves as a civilized country when death comes from a gloved hand guiding a needle into an arm instead of a bloodied body riddled with bullet holes. Perhaps it’s easier to forget what’s really happening.
In Albert Camus’ 1957 essay, “Reflections on The Guillotine,” the author describes his fervently pro-death penalty father attending the public execution of an infamous murderer. Though his father never spoke about what he saw that day, he was horribly shaken and immediately reversed his views on capital punishment. “If society justifies the death penalty as a necessary example,” Camus writes, “then it must justify itself by providing the publicity necessary to make an example. Society must display the executioner’s hands on each occasion, and require the most squeamish citizens to look at them, as well as those who, directly or remotely, have supported the work of those hands from the first.”
What is happening in Arkansas should be shocking to any American, and we should not look away.