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Schedule, Secrecy Give Federal Judge, Condemned Men Pause

Bobby Ampezzan
Arkansas Public Media

A federal judge in Little Rock has stayed the executions of eight inmates scheduled this month. The ruling came down Saturday morning granting a preliminary injunction in the case.

The inmates had argued the state’s lethal injection protocol creates a risk of severe pain, and federal Judge Kristine Baker agreed, while expressing regret for the further delay caused to families of the inmates’ victims.

Pulaski County Circuit Court Judge Wendell Griffen put a separate stay on the use of one of the execution drugs Friday, after a manufacturer filed suit to block its use.  Two other inmates had also received separate individual stays.

Credit Mitchell McCoy / KARK
Pulaski County Circuit Court Judge Wendell Griffen lies on a gurney Friday outside the Arkansas Governor's Mansion. His death penalty protest took place moments before he issued a stay in the state's planned executions.

That decision by Griffen stirred a wave of consternation and threats on social media from state lawmakers and conservatives bothered that, just moments before Griffen's decision, the judge was photographed making a singularly dramatic protest at the gates of the Governor's Mansion.

The state was trying to execute all eight inmates before the supply of one of its drugs expired at the end of the month. It’s been 12 years since Arkansas has performed an execution.

Credit Bobby Ampezzan / Arkansas Public Media
Arkansas Public Media
Arkansas Solicitor General Lee Rudofsky and other attorneys for the state outside the federal courthouse in Little Rock.

Lawyers for the state told the court it would be in the public interest to execute before Arkansas’s drugs expire. And they say inmates’ claims about possible errors were speculative. Arkansas Solicitor General Lee Rudofsky said the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled for the use of a three-drug lethal injection protocol.

The inmates’ lawsuit also argued rushing execution will lead to stress and error. Department of Correction officials testified about their plans and qualifications to carrying out up to eight executions in 11 days.

Expert witnesses in a federal hearing this week disagreed over whether the state’s drug cocktail is a cruel and unusual punishment.

Arkansas’s protocol calls for a 500 mg dose of midazolam, much higher than the 10-20 mg average dose in a clinical setting, followed by vecuronium bromide, a paralytic that hinders breathing, and potassium chloride, which stops the heart.

An anesthesiologist who testified on behalf of the condemned men, Joel B. Zivot of Emory University in Atlanta, said midazolam won’t prevent such a death from being terrifying and painful. In fact, he said, it could make it more acute.

The state's witness, Dr. Daniel Buffington, a doctor of pharmacology from Florida, disagreed. He said midazolam has short term powers to anesthetize.  

Earlier this month, the Sixth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled against Ohio’s use of midazolam in its execution protocol. 

This story is produced by Arkansas Public Media. What's that? APM is nonprofit journalism project for all of Arkansas and a collaboration among public media in the state. We're funded in part through a grant from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, with the support of partner stations KUAR, KUAF, KASU and KTXK. And, we hope, from you! You can learn more and support Arkansas Public Media’s reporting at Arkansas Public Media is Natural State news with context.

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