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Arkansas’ mass executions facing mass of challenges

If he gets his way, Arkansas’ Republican Gov. Asa Hutchinson will execute eight men in 11 days this month. On Feb. 27, he issued the death warrants for the prisoners, with “doubleheader” executions on April 17, 20, 24 and 27, because the state’s supply of one of the three drugs in the execution “cocktail,” midazolam, is set to expire at the end of April. As of Friday, three of the eight executions had been temporarily halted, one inmate had received a stay, one inmate was executed Thursday night, and the other three are scheduled to die Monday and on April 27 in what would be a rapid-fire flurry of executions unprecedented in modern U.S. history.

Megan McCracken is an attorney with the Death Penalty Clinic at the University of California, Berkeley, School of Law. She told the “Democracy Now!” news hour: “Midazolam is an anti-anxiety drug … but it is not an anesthetic drug. That means it’s not used to take a person who is awake and conscious to put that person under surgical anesthesia and then keep that person there. That’s what’s needed for an execution to be humane, to comport with the Constitution. This drug is inappropriate for the task. You have this situation created by the state where it’s rushing to use a drug before it expires, even though the drug itself is inappropriate for the use.” Midazolam is the first of the drugs in Arkansas’ death mix.

All the drugs for executions by lethal injection are becoming harder and harder to acquire; companies don’t want to be associated with the increasingly unpopular practice of capital punishment, and the European Union has banned companies in Europe from selling execution drugs since 2011, partly because of sensitivity to the Holocaust – yes, press secretary Sean Spicer, Adolf Hitler did use gas to kill millions of people.

The eight men scheduled for execution by Gov. Hutchinson each have unique circumstances but fall into categories that are common on America’s death rows: poor, disproportionately of color, most likely to have been found guilty of a crime that had a white victim, and incapable of mounting the type of vigorous defense wealthier defendants can.

Damien Echols knows Arkansas’ death row all too well: He spent more than 18 years on it. He was one of the West Memphis Three, imprisoned for the 1993 slayings of three 8-year-old boys. Four separate documentary films were made about that case, attracting global attention and increased scrutiny. After improved DNA testing became available years later, he and his two co-defendants were freed in 2011.

“These are people that I knew on a personal, everyday basis. (Some) have an IQ of 70. Some of them are mentally insane. A couple of them are believed to be innocent,” Echols said on “Democracy Now!” One of those slated to be executed is Don Davis.

“He had killed a woman during a home invasion … He said it tortured him every single day for the rest of his life since he had done it,” Echols said. “He was crying when he was saying this. … Every single night when he went back to his cell, it’s all he thought about all night long. This was a guy who has been in there for 25 years and has had an incredible amount of time to reflect on what he’s done, and was truly regretful.”

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Despite suffering multiple anxiety attacks, Echols returned to Arkansas, the state that almost killed him, to participate in a rally at the Arkansas Capitol building on Good Friday, accompanied by his friend, actor Johnny Depp.

At the Governor’s Mansion nearby, a half-dozen people held signs against the death penalty. In front of them, an African-American man lay on a cot, as if on a death-chamber gurney awaiting execution. That man was the Honorable Wendell Griffen.

An Arkansas state judge, Griffen had just issued a temporary restraining order, in response to a motion filed by the McKesson Corp., which distributes chemicals. McKesson claimed that the Arkansas Department of Correction deceived them in order to acquire vecuronium bromide, another of the lethal drugs in the state’s execution cocktail. McKesson will only sell vecuronium bromide for authorized medical purposes, which do not include executions. Judge Griffen’s restraining order, along with the imminent expiration of the state’s supply of midazolam, would effectively halt executions in Arkansas indefinitely. In response to his part in the anti-death-penalty protest, the state Supreme Court stripped Griffen of his authority to oversee any capital punishment cases.

Meanwhile, the U.S. Supreme Court is considering an appeal from the Arkansas death-row prisoners; on Thursday it denied Ledell Lee’s, put to death for beating a woman to death with a tire tool. Whether or not Gov. Asa Hutchinson has his way and oversees the execution of eight men hangs in the balance.

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