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Criminal Justice

Justice on a Conveyor Belt: The Death Penalty in Arkansas

By Rachel Robison-Greene
2 May 2017

In March and April of this year, the state of Arkansas made national headlines for its plan to execute eight prisoners over the course of 11 days.  The speed involved is striking, especially when compared with national annual execution averages; only 20 people were executed nationwide in 2016.  

The truth is, Arkansas is racing against the clock.  Like most states, the primary method of execution in Arkansas is lethal injection.  Death by lethal injection is typically accomplished using a three-drug cocktail.  In Arkansas, midazolam is used as an anesthetic, ideally ensuring that the prisoner does not experience any pain.  Vecuronium bromide is used to cause paralysis before potassium chloride is used to stop the heart.  The trouble is, the remaining midazolam that Arkansas possesses is about to reach its expiration date, and it looks like they won’t have access to more any time soon.

The United States differs from most other developed nations when it comes to its policy on the death penalty.  140 countries in the world do not execute criminals.  In 2015, The United States ranked fifth in the world in terms of the number of prisoners it executed — ranking only behind China, Iran, Pakistan, and Saudi Arabia.  

In most countries, moral concerns provide the justification for abolitionist strategies.  As a result, pharmaceutical companies based outside of the United States are declining to provide drugs that they know might be used for the purpose of implementing the death penalty.  For example, just this year, Pfizer, the FDA-approved company that provided the state of Arkansas with vecuronium bromide, announced that they would block the sale of the drug to the United States going forward.  It appears that representatives from Pfizer were not made aware that the the drugs were intended for death penalty use when they were initially sold.  

Midazolam is among the drugs that pharmaceutical companies are refusing to provide.  With its stores about to expire, Arkansas’ ability to execute criminals using lethal injection will be seriously compromised.  Their solution was to attempt to execute as many prisoners as possible before that happens.

States with the death penalty tend to think that executing criminals who have committed the most heinous of crimes is necessary for the purposes of retributive justice.  Once a criminal has been sentenced, the state has an obligation to the victims, and to the victims’ family and friends, to carry that sentence out.  The state also has an obligation to society as a whole.  The death penalty is an expression of a state’s core values.  It makes clear, in the most severe possible way, the kinds of behavior that the culture simply will not tolerate.

To be sure, the eight death row criminals involved in this case committed egregious crimes.  Don William Davis and Stacey Eugene Johnson both killed women in two distinct home invasions. Jack Harold Jones murdered his girlfriend, beat her daughter almost to death, and appears to be linked to the death of yet another.  Ledall Lee was a rapist and bludgeoned a woman to death.  Jason McGahee tortured and beat a 15-year-old to death.  Bruce Earl Ward and Marcel C. Williams each killed gas station attendants in two distinct incidents.  Kenneth D. Williams murdered someone, landed in jail, escaped, murdered a guard, returned to prison, found religion, and confessed to another murder for which he was never suspected.

Advocates of the death penalty tend to be concerned that opposition to the practice rests on attitudes of unwarranted sympathy for criminals who do not share a similar sense of sympathy for their fellow citizens. They argue that in this particular case, the state, because of its obligation to see to it that justice is served, also has an obligation to assure that the executions are not delayed indefinitely.  The way they see it, justice delayed is justice denied.

Opponents of Arkansas’ plan are concerned that their decision to act so quickly violates the legal and moral rights that the condemned have to due process.  The policy paints all of the prisoners with the same brush, but each of the circumstances are unique.  If there is such a thing as a justified use of capital punishment, it seems like some of these criminals might deserve it.  In other cases, however, it is not as clear.  Some of them arguably have reduced mental capacity, and Ward was diagnosed as a paranoid schizophrenic.  At least one of them might have a claim to ineffective counsel during his original trial—allegedly one of Lee’s attorneys had substance abuse problems at the time, and another surrendered his law license due to emotional problems.

Additional controversy surrounds the actions taken by the pharmaceutical companies in this case.  Many applaud their decision, arguing that the development, sale, and distribution of drugs should always be motivated by the goal of saving or improving lives, not by a desire to end them.  Others argue that corporations should not, in effect, violate the sovereignty of nations.  Countries have the right to develop and implement their own system of values.  They argue that dealing with the worst of criminals in a retributive way certainly falls in the realm of rational reaction to the nature of the crimes committed.  As such, pharmaceutical companies shouldn’t impose their own value systems on foreign nations.  Given the prohibitive prices such companies set for their products, it isn’t as if pharmaceutical companies are the poster children for level headed, objective moral practices.  

Others contend that such arguments are grounded in moral relativism, a well intentioned but ultimately misguided meta-ethical position that, taken to its logical extreme, results in a world in which the global community does nothing while isolated countries commit atrocities against their citizens.  The death penalty, many argue, is just such an atrocity. The injustice is compounded when racial inequalities in pursuit and sentencing of the death penalty are taken into account.

Since the time Arkansas announced its intention to execute eight prisoners, it has honored its word with respect to four of them.  There was Supreme Court intervention to prevent the other four executions.  Ledall Lee, Jack Harold Jones, Marcel Williams, and Kenneth D. Williams were all executed in April, all over the course of eight days.  The circumstances of the death of Kenneth Williams led to still greater controversy.  His lurching and convulsing movements during his execution suggested to many that the drug cocktail did not function properly to prevent the condemned man from experiencing pain.  

Williams’ death provided new fuel for the fire in the recent controversy concerning the extent to which condemned criminals actually feel pain during lethal injection.  Opponents of lethal injection argue that if it is impossible to determine whether the executed prisoner is experiencing pain, or how much pain they are experiencing, we cannot rule out the possibility that lethal injection constitutes cruel and unusual punishment.  Of course, such considerations raise the question: which method of execution, if any, is more humane?

Rachel is an Assistant Professor of Philosophy at Utah State University. Her research interests include the nature of personhood and the self, animal minds and animal ethics, environmental ethics, and ethics and technology. She is the co-host of the pop culture and philosophy podcast I Think Therefore I Fan.
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