By Stephen Cooper
Ghoulishness envelops Arkansas’ decision to pump deadly drugs into eight men over the next fortnight. Although two of the eight scheduled executions have definitively been stayed and a temporary restraining order has been issued as to the remaining six, the state plans an emergency appeal.
Articles about “midazolam,” the drug whose expiration date prompted Arkansas Governor Asa Hutchinson to schedule this unprecedented mass execution are abuzz on the internet and social media. By this point many Americans have heard or are generally aware that while midazolam is supposed to render the condemned unconscious and insensate, it has been linked to a number of gruesome and botched executions in the United States. These are lethal injections where instead of drifting into a sterile, serene, slumber-like death, the condemned have for minutes and even hours, convulsed, coughed, clenched their fists, writhed and thrashed their bodies, murmured, spoken, or cried out in obvious distress; some have gasped for interminably long periods of time mimicking the discomfiting death-throes of still-live fish thrown flat on a sunbaked pier, to suffocate and to burn.
Importantly, torturous executions linked to midazolam have occurred when just one or at most two executions have been scheduled at one time. This is why a chorus of lawyers, law professors, medical experts, ethicists, and former correctional officials, have all raised their voices in the last few days against Hutchinson’s mass-killing decree. “Multiple executions create rushed circumstances. Rushed circumstances risk error,” said Robert Dunham, executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center. In other words, the assembly-line nature of Hutchinson’s expediency-centric execution schedule exacerbates the risk that one or more of the men to be executed next week will suffer an excruciatingly painful execution; an execution plainly violative of the Constitution’s prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment.
In January 2016, I wrote about the then-impending execution of Christopher Brooks in Alabama – an execution likely botched by the controversial use of midazolam – a drug that according to competent medical experts, is inappropriate for use in executions.
Specifically, I wrote: “In the United States, we rightly condemn barbaric executions in other countries, like in North Korea, where, in front of an audience, Kim Jon-Un executed his defense minister with an anti-aircraft gun, or, in Saudi Arabia, where beheading remains a common practice. We have especially condemned ISIS executions, executions that have included burning and burying people alive.”
Highlighting Brooks’ federal defenders’ arguments that, because of the documented problems with midazolam, Brooks would feel like “he is [both] being buried alive” and “burn[ed] alive from the inside”, I plaintively demanded: “How can we countenance the fact that we, as Americans, may also be subjecting human beings – irrespective of their crimes, even heinous ones – to that same end? Can the fact that US executions are not broadcast to the masses from some windswept desert in the Middle East, and occur, instead, in sterile prisons, under the color of law, really make such a difference? Isn’t it morally wrong to execute someone by reproducing the sensation of being buried alive followed by burning them from the inside out?” I lamented, “Aren’t we, as a nation, and as people, better than that?”
Next week, if Arkansas’ state-sanctioned killing spree goes forward, the answer to that question will resoundingly be “no.” It’ll be no, no, no, no, no, no.
And as far as the title of my one-year-old Huffington Post blog, “When Will The United States Stop ‘Tinkering With The Machinery of Death?’”, based on the monumentally-high level of depravity promising to be on display next week in Arkansas, not soon enough.
About the Author: Stephen Cooper is a former D.C. public defender who worked as an assistant federal public defender in Alabama between 2012 and 2015. He has contributed to numerous magazines and newspapers in the United States and overseas. He writes full-time and lives in Woodland Hills, California. Follow him on Twitter @SteveCooperEsq
Editors note: Yesterday morning in Little Rock, Arkansas, Federal District Court Judge Kristine G. Baker of the halted the state’s plan to execute the eight prisoners. The Arkansas Attorney General is going to appeal the decision.