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Short Supply of Drug Leads to Hurried Executions in Arkansas


The death chamber of the new lethal injection facility at San Quentin State Prison in San Quentin, Calif., Sept. 21, 2010.

The U.S. state of Arkansas has put three people to death in less than a week and another execution is planned for Thursday. Two of the prisoners were executed Monday – the first double execution to be carried out in the southern U.S. state in 17 years.

Officials in Arkansas recently announced plans to execute eight inmates over the course of four days by the end of April. Four of the planned executions have been blocked by legal action.

The reason for so many executions in a short time is the state is running out of a drug used to carry out death sentences. The shelf life of the drug, called midazolam, is set to end at the end of April.

Midazolam is one of three drugs used in a combination to carry out lethal injections in Arkansas. The drug is usually used by doctors to relax people and treat anxiety.

In executions, it is used for the same purpose and is the first drug administered. The second drug, pancuronium bromide, is used to paralyze the body and stop breathing, while a third, potassium chloride, is given to stop the heart.

State officials have said it is unclear when they would be able to replace the current supply of the drug for future executions.

Megan McCracken is a lawyer and lethal injection expert at the Death Penalty Clinic at the University of California at Berkeley Law School.

She says planning so many executions in such a short time opens up many possibilities for dangerous mistakes to happen.

“To schedule two executions back-to-back four times in a very short amount of time just loads all the pressure into this very tight time frame. Really increasing the risk of mistakes and errors, and needlessly upping all of that pressure and risk.”

A combination of undated photos provided by the Arkansas Department of Correction shows death-row inmates Jack Jones, left, and Marcel Williams. The two were put to death in a rare double execution Monday night.
A combination of undated photos provided by the Arkansas Department of Correction shows death-row inmates Jack Jones, left, and Marcel Williams. The two were put to death in a rare double execution Monday night.

McCracken noted that the last time a state tried to execute two prisoners on the same night, one of the attempts ended up in a botched procedure. That execution involved the use of midazolam during a lethal injection execution in the state of Oklahoma in 2014.

Officials admitted later that people performing the execution felt hurried in the procedure to get it done quickly and made mistakes.

McCracken said she does not think Arkansas state officials had a good reason to plan eight executions over a period of a few days.

“The schedule was made based on the expiration date of the drug, which should not be the driving force for planning.”

The main reason for a shortage of execution drugs in Arkansas – as well as many other states - is because most manufacturers do not want their drugs used to kill people. Many companies have requested that states do not use their drugs for this purpose. Some have even taken legal action in a bid to force states not to use their drugs for executions.

This March 25, 2017, file photo shows a sign for the Department of Correction's Cummins Unit prison in Varner, Ark.
This March 25, 2017, file photo shows a sign for the Department of Correction's Cummins Unit prison in Varner, Ark.

McCracken says some states have passed laws keeping their source of execution drugs secret in order to avoid protests by companies and the public. She said the problem with this is that it “takes away a level of oversight and accountability.”

She added that a problem with the three-drug method is that it creates a paralyzed state in which prisoners cannot really show any signs of trouble during the execution process.

“Once that prisoner is paralyzed, it’s impossible to see if he or she is conscious, suffering, struggling, in pain, etc. So no matter what, everything is going to look like it is going fine.”

Lethal injection is by far the most common method of execution in the United States. Some states also use electrocution, gas chamber, hanging or firing squad.

Overall, the number of executions and level of support for the death penalty has dropped greatly over the past two decades. There were 20 executions carried out in the United States in 2016, the lowest level recorded in any year since 1991. This is half the number in 1996, and nearly five times lower than in 1999.

Protesters are seen gathered outside the state Capitol building on April 14, 2017, in Little Rock, Arkansas, to voice their opposition to the state's planned executions.
Protesters are seen gathered outside the state Capitol building on April 14, 2017, in Little Rock, Arkansas, to voice their opposition to the state's planned executions.

Robert Dunham is the executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center in Washington. He said a drop in support for executions has been seen among all demographics, as well as across political and religious groups. However, public opinion surveys have shown that about 49 percent of Americans still favor the death penalty, while 42 percent oppose it.

Dunham added that since 1973, 158 people have been released from death sentences after new evidence proved they were wrongly convicted. He said most research does not show clear evidence that the death penalty acts as a deterrent to murder.

America’s death penalty has been criticized by some countries and international activist groups for being a violation of human rights. Dunham said this can lead U.S. diplomats to face questions on the issue when in discussions with other countries.

“When the United States has sought to get other countries to address human rights violations in their borders, the response that diplomats have frequently received is, ‘Well when you stop executing people, we will maybe listen to you.”

I’m Bryan Lynn.

Bryan Lynn reported this story for VOA Learning English, with additional material from VOA News, the Associated Press and Reuters. Hai Do was the editor.

We want to hear from you. What are your thoughts on the death penalty and the methods used to carry it out? Write to us in the Comments section, and visit our Facebook page.

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Words in This Story

shelf-life n. length of time something remains usable

lethal injection n. shot administered as a means of carrying out the death penalty

anxietyn. feeling of nervousness or worry

botch v. do something badly due to carelessness of lack of skill

accountability n. required to be responsible for something

paralyzed adj. unable to move or feel part of the body

conscious adj. to be awake and aware of things around you

electrocutionn. method of killing by electric shock

chamber n. room used for a specific purpose

deterrent n. something that makes someone decided not to do something

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