Arkansas’ plans to hastily execute eight death row inmates in a period of less than two weeks before the expiration date of one of its sedative drugs was a horrific and insane plan to begin with.
But just hours before those executions were slated to begin on Monday, a federal judge issued an injunction early Saturday morning that halts them, saying Arkansas’ lethal injection protocol could violate the inmates’ Eighth Amendment rights.
In her ruling, U.S. District Judge Kristine Baker stated that “the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition of cruel and unusual punishment is not limited to inherently barbaric punishments,” the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette reports. “A condemned prisoner can successfully challenge the method of his or her execution by showing that the state’s method ‘creates a demonstrated risk of severe pain’ and ‘the risk is substantial when compared to the known and available alternatives.’”
Baker’s injunction follows two other court rulings this week that put a snag in Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson’s whirlwind race to use prescription drugs for executions that not even the pharmaceutical companies that make them support. Hutchinson said the executions — which included a schedule of killing two inmates per day on Mondays and Thursdays — is necessary to bring closure for victims’ families.
The courts seem to be lining up to disagree with the governor. On Friday, the Arkansas Supreme Court granted an emergency stay for Bruce Earl Ward, who would have been executed on Monday. Earlier, a different federal judge stayed the execution of death row inmate Jason McGehee, leaving six inmates still scheduled to die.
In addition to the plan’s brutal haste, which Baker said would violate due process, several courts have taken issue with the use of the drugs themselves, including midazolam, the drug that expires for Arkansas at the end of the month.
On Thursday, two pharmaceutical companies asked Baker to prevent Arkansas from using their drugs in executions, according to the Democrat-Gazette. The companies argued that these drugs are intended for health care, not for killing people. Baker stated that the use midazolam in executions is likely unconstitutional, citing previous botched executions using midazolam in Alabama, Arizona, Ohio, and Oklahoma, according to the Associated Press.
According to Jeff Rosenzweig, an attorney for one of the death row inmates scheduled for execution, Arkansas “is using a protocol, a system, that is going to cause torture, and as a society, that’s not acceptable,” THV11 reported.
Protesters rallied at the Arkansas state capitol on Friday to call for the executions to be blocked. Attending the rally were actor Johnny Depp and his friend Damien Nichols, who was wrongly convicted of the 1993 killing of three boys in West Memphis, Arkansas, and spent 18 years in prison before being released on an Alford plea.
The state of Arkansas has appealed Saturday’s injunction and hopes to move forward with the executions.