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Death penalty expert calls Arkansas’ execution schedule ‘unprecedented in modern era’

Robert Dunham, executive director of Washington, D.C.-based Death Penalty Information Center, tells Talk Business & Politics the state’s executions scheduled over 10 days in April are “unprecedented." (MGN Photo)

LITTLE ROCK (TALK BUSINESS & POLITICS) One of the nation’s top death penalty experts said Arkansas’ four sets of executions scheduled only 21 days from now are “unprecedented in the modern era of the U.S. death penalty” since the nation restarted capital punishment in the mid-1970s.

“No state has attempted to carry out so many executions in such a short period of time,” Robert Dunham, executive director of Washington, D.C.-based Death Penalty Information Center, told Talk Business & Politics. “We are seeing a state create an artificially constricted execution schedule in order to carry out executions by a ‘kill-by’ date – the date that their drug expires.”

Dunham made his comments Monday (March 27) after attorneys for eight Arkansas death-row inmates filed a federal motion to block the executions in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Arkansas in Jonesboro. The lawsuit was filed against Gov. Asa Hutchinson and the state Department of Correction Director Wendy Kelley.

Gov. Hutchinson has set four execution dates from April 17 to April 27 for eight Arkansas inmates on death row whose appeals have been exhausted and whose cases the U.S. Supreme Court declined to review in late February. Monday’s motion asks the federal court for a preliminary injunction to prevent the state from executing the prisoners so that the court may consider the merits of the case.

Of the 31 death penalty states, Texas, Oklahoma and Virginia have sent more prison inmates to death row since the U.S. reinstated capital punishment in 1976 when a series of Supreme Court decisions ended the de facto moratorium on the death penalty.

According to data compiled by the DPIC, there have been 1,448 executions in the U.S. since 1976, with Texas well ahead of all other states with 542 death sentences. Oklahoma and Virginia are tied for second with 112 death sentences a piece, DPIC data shows.

EIGHT EXECUTIONS IN 11 DAYS

Dunham said no state has ever executed eight prisoners in a period of 11 days. And only Texas has ever executed eight prisoners in a single month, twice in May and June of 1997. “So that’s unprecedented, and it’s also unprecedented that any (state) would attempt back-to-back executions in the same week, let alone four of them in the space of 11 days,” he said.

The death penalty expert said the filing for an expedited preliminary injunction could eventually reach the U.S. Supreme Court if the federal court does not grant an expedited hearing before the first scheduled execution on April 17.

“The federal court will either grant an expedited hearing or the prisoners will appeal a lack of a hearing to the (U.S.) Circuit Court. If the Circuit doesn’t authorize a hearing, then they will ask the Supreme Court to authorize a hearing,” said the DPIC spokesman.

So far in 2017, there have been six men executed by lethal injection in the U.S., according to data compiled by the DPIC. Four of those executions were in Texas, and one each in Virginia and Missouri. The eight Arkansas prisoners are among the 35 death row inmates in the U.S. scheduled for execution through the end of this year.

Since Gov. Hutchinson signed orders for the eight Arkansas executions in late April, Dunham said DPIC has received a flurry of press inquiries asking whether any state had carried out so many executions in such a short time span. Since then, the Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit research group has added a link to its website with updated information on the Arkansas executions.

DPIC’s data also shows that states’ decision to schedule two or more executions on the same day is also unusual. That has happened just 10 times in the past 40 years, all between 1994 and 2000. The last time it occurred was when Texas executed Brian Roberson and Oliver Cruz on August 9, 2000.

ARKANSAS HAS HISTORY OF MULTIPLE EXECUTIONS

Still, there is some precedent in Arkansas for carrying out multiple executions over a short period of time. Arkansas is one of only four states that have carried out multiple executions on the same day: Arkansas (4 times), Texas (3 times), Illinois (twice), and South Carolina (once).

Arkansas is also the only state to have conducted triple executions, which it has done twice – on Aug. 3, 1994 and Jan. 8, 1997. No state has carried out more than one double execution in the same week. The shortest time span between multiple executions in any state is 84 days: Arkansas executed Edward Pickens and Jonas Whitmore on May 11, 1994 and co-defendants James Holmes, Darryl Richley, and Hoyt Clines on Aug. 3 of that year.

In 2017, 23 executions in the U.S. have been stayed or rescheduled by governors or state and federal court for various reasons, including legal challenges to lethal injection drug protocol. Some death penalty opponents have said that Arkansas’ hurried execution schedule appears to be an attempt to use the state’s limited supply of eight doses of midazolam, which are to expire at the end of April 2017.

At the time the execution schedule was announced, Arkansas did not have a supply of potassium chloride, the killing drug specified in its execution protocol, but state officials have since obtained sufficient supplies of that drug to carry out the scheduled executions.

According to DPIC, no state has successfully executed two prisoners on the same day using midazolam. Oklahoma attempted to do so on April 29, 2014, but called off the second execution after the botched execution of Clayton Lockett earlier that night.

The eight Arkansas prisoners scheduled for execution – Bruce Ward, Don Davis, Stacey Johnson, Ledell Lee, Jack Jones, Marcel Williams, Kenneth Williams and Jason McGehee – make up 23% of Arkansas’ death row. Each man is being executed for committing acts of murder.

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