On February 27, 2017, Arkansas Governor Asa Hutchinson issued executive orders scheduling eight executions to take place over the course of 11 days. Governor Hutchinson scheduled two executions per day on April 17, April 20, April 24, and April 27, 2017. Since the U.S. Supreme Court reinstated the death penalty in Gregg v. Georgia, no such spate of executions has occurred in such a limited time period anywhere else in the United States.
Arkansas readily conceded that this unprecedented rush to execute came as a result of fears that it would be unable to procure more Midazolam, one of the three drugs used in its lethal-injection protocol. Arkansas’ existing supply of Midazolam was set to expire on April 30, 2017, and the state concluded it had enough of its current stock to execute eight individuals before that date. As a result, when litigation over the lethal injection protocol concluded earlier this year, the state worked quickly to carry out as many death sentences as its remaining drug supply would allow.
This flurry to execute eight individuals in such a compressed timeframe resulted in an equally unprecedented amount of litigation over the course of roughly three weeks, ranging from suits filed on behalf of drug companies who did not want their drugs used in the executions, to suits challenging the state’s failure to follow its clemency procedures as to the condemned individuals. As a result of the multiple lawsuits filed, Arkansas was able to execute only four of the eight men initially slated for execution before the end of April. Jason McGehee, Bruce Ward, Don Davis, and Stacey Johnson all obtained stays of execution on various grounds. Arkansas executed Ledell Lee (4/20), Jack Jones (4/24), Marcel Williams (4/24), and Kenneth Williams (4/27). Importantly, the executions of four men in seven days is still unprecedented in the modern death penalty era.
On April 11, ABA President Linda Klein wrote to Governor Hutchinson urging him to slow down the planned executions: “Because neither Arkansas decision-makers nor defense counsel currently have adequate time to ensure that these executions are carried out with due process of law, we simply ask that you modify the current execution schedule to allow for adequate time between executions.”
Despite a national trend of waning support for the death penalty, the majority of Arkansans continue to support capital punishment. A new poll indicates that 61% of Arkansan respondents support the death penalty, while only 29% favor a sentence of life without parole. The poll delves into specific questions pertaining to the current state of affairs in Arkansas, most specifically asking respondents if they supported the state’s compressed execution schedule. 51% of respondents indicated that they did support the time frame (with a margin of error of +/-4.2%).
April was an exceedingly difficult month for death penalty attorneys, both for those actively involved in litigating these cases and for those following the developments as multiple lawsuits progressed. We would like to thank each and every lawyer and law firm that stepped forward in response to our solicitation for assistance during this tumultuous month. The response we received from you all was overwhelming, and made a significant difference in the outcome of some of these pivotal cases. Your support makes this Project and the work we do possible. Thank you.