In the space of 10 days in April, Arkansas plans to execute eight men — nearly a quarter of its entire death-row population, and more than a third as many people as were put to death in America in 2016. It would be the fastest spate of executions in any state in more than 40 years. All of the men have sat on Arkansas’s death row for decades. Why the sudden rush to kill them now? The answer is as mundane as it is absurd: The state’s batch of a lethal-injection drug is about to expire.
That drug, the sedative midazolam, is supposed to render the inmate unconscious, and thus lead to a “quieter” death. In practice it has been associated with multiple botched executions resulting in intense pain and suffering for inmates — “the chemical equivalent of being burned at the stake,” as Justice Sonia Sotomayor of the Supreme Court described it in 2015. Legal challenges have made it harder for states to obtain midazolam, and have slowed the pace of executions around the country. Arkansas has not executed anyone since 2005, mostly because of litigation surrounding its lethal-injection protocol.
But for now the drug is still legal, and last month the Supreme Court declined to review the last of the Arkansas cases, paving the way for the state to set new execution dates. Gov. Asa Hutchinson said he would prefer to spread the executions over a longer period, but “that’s not the circumstances that I find myself in.”
In other words, he’s justifying a state-sanctioned killing spree driven by the use-by date stamped on a bottle. Arkansas has also run out of potassium chloride, another drug in the three-drug lethal cocktail, but says it expects to be able to get more by April.
The paradox is that it’s not hard to kill people if you’re willing to tolerate some gore. Arkansas could change its law to allow the use of a firing squad, for instance, which is faster and more reliable than lethal injection. Instead, like almost all other states, it has opted for a “medically sterile aura of peace,” as Justice Sotomayor wrote in February, dissenting from the court’s decision not to hear a challenge to Alabama’s use of midazolam. More bluntly, Americans want to indulge their bloodlust without having to think about the blood. Lethal-injection protocols indulge this squeamishness, and in the process disregard a condemned person’s constitutional right to be free from cruel and unusual punishment.
But killing in the government’s name is a brutal business, no matter the method used. The American death-penalty debate would be more honest if the public were forced to face that fact. States that kill their citizens, Justice Sotomayor wrote, “should not be permitted to shield the true horror of executions from official and public view.”
Until that changes, the elaborate, bloodless theater of gurneys, needles and doctor’s scrubs will continue to fool Americans into believing they can hold on to their humanity even as they take part in barbarity.