It became known as ‘the conveyor belt of death' with the media dubbing it a 'mass execution'. The state of Arkansas planned to execute eight condemned men over an 11-day period in April 2017. It had been 12 years since the state’s last execution, and following the announcement, Governor Asa Hutchinson made a surprising disclosure: the executions had been scheduled due to the imminent expiry of a batch of lethal injection drugs.
The decision to execute eight men before the expiry of Arkansas's cache of midazolam – a drug that is used medicinally in anaesthesia – made headlines around the world. It’s the topic of a new BBC Three documentary: Life and Death Row.
There was a series of frantic legal appeals, which resulted in three of the eight men being granted temporary reprieves, and one being granted clemency. The other four were executed. The media attention gradually receded.
But the story is far from over. In the coming weeks, another batch of Arkansas's lethal injection drugs is due to expire.
The drugs are difficult to obtain as manufacturers have become reluctant to sell them for the purpose of execution.
Pharmaceutical company Pfizer announced in May 2016 that it had put in place a ‘comprehensive strategy’ to prevent its distributors from selling drugs for lethal injections. The announcement came soon after its acquisition of Hospira in September 2015 – a smaller pharmaceutical company who had previously taken steps to prevent their drugs being used in lethal injection procedures.
The lives of Don Davis, Bruce Ward and Jack Greene now hang in the balance. They are all in the middle of final appeals which will determine whether or not they receive the lethal injection, which is made up of midazolam, vecuronium bromide and potassium chloride.
All three are convicted murderers. Don Davis was sentenced to death for the 1990 killing of 62-year-old Jane Daniels. Bruce Ward killed teenager Rebecca Doss at a petrol station in 1989, and Jack Greene beat, stabbed and shot 69-year-old Sidney Burnett in 1991.
They have all been on death row for decades.
Davis and Ward were two of the eight inmates slated for execution in April 2017. Both received reprieves just hours before their scheduled executions, thanks to a decision by the US Supreme Court to consult on the right of defendants to an independent mental health evaluation.
Ward’s lawyers say that he is schizophrenic and too mentally incompetent to be executed. Davis’s lawyers say that he has ADHD and suffers with the effects of childhood trauma and substance abuse. Their story is told the first episode of series two of Life and Death Row.
Jack Greene’s execution was scheduled for 9 November 2017, but it was called off to consider whether Arkansas’s prison director – as opposed to a doctor – is a suitable judge of his mental health. His final appeal is this month.
On 1 March 2018, the state’s cache of 75 vials of vecuronium bromide will expire. If the decision is taken to execute the men, five vials will be used for each execution.
The men are unlikely to relax if and when they pass 1 March. Arkansas’ stockpile of the third drug used in the lethal injection procedure, potassium chloride, expires on 31 August. And another batch of midazolam expires on 31 January next year.
Despite Pfizer’s announcement in May 2016, Arkansas’s Department of Correction has been able to purchase lethal injection drugs from a Pfizer distributor, according to records obtained by The Associated Press in 2016.
These show the state agreed to pay $1,849.33 for 100 vials of vecuronium bromide on 11 July 2016 as well as $2,982 for a purity analysis of the drug.
Pfizer later said that the drugs had been sold to Arkansas without the company’s knowledge – and that it had twice requested their return from Arkansas.
“Without Pfizer’s knowledge, McKesson, a distributor, sold the product to [the Arkansas Department of Corrections],” Pfizer said in a statement. “This was in direct violation of our policy.”
“We considered other means by which to secure the return of the product, up to and including legal action. After careful consideration, we determined that it was highly unlikely that any of these means would secure the timely return of the product and thereby prevent this misuse.”
McKesson, the distributor that sold the vecuronium bromide to Arkansas, also asked for its return after the sale had gone through. The company refunded Arkansas the money from the sale of the drug, and was granted a temporary restraining order against Arkansas prohibiting it from using vecuronium bromide obtained by McKesson.
Arkansas Supreme Court ultimately issued a stay of the restraining order. McKesson released a statement on 20 April 2017 that said: “We believe we have done all we can do at this time to recover our product.”
Ledell Lee, the first of the eight condemned men, was killed the following day.
Once current stocks expire, Governor Hutchinson has said it is "uncertain" as to whether they can be replenished. The number of executions carried out nationwide has been reducing for years – in part because pharmacies are reluctant to provide the relevant drugs.
Arkansas’s lethal injection procedure involves the administration of midazolam until the prisoner is confirmed unconscious. This is then followed by vecuronium bromide and potassium chloride. Vecuronium bromide paralyses the prisoner’s muscles, ultimately stopping their breathing. The drug has little effect on the heart, however, and so in order to speed up the process of death, potassium chloride is used to stop the heart.
The stated outcome, according to the Arkansas “Lethal Injection Procedure” – is capitalized to convey its importance: “EVERY EFFORT WILL BE EXTENDED TO THE CONDEMNED INMATE TO ENSURE THAT NO UNNECESSARY PAIN OR SUFFERING IS INFLICTED BY THE IV PROCEDURE”.
Another consequence of executing a prisoner this way is that the death – which is witnessed by several observers – is quiet and discreet.
This article was originally published on 19 February 2018