Federal appeals court upholds Arkansas’ lethal injection protocol

Death row inmates had focused on use of controversial sedative

By: - August 16, 2022 8:00 pm

A view of the death chamber from the witness room at the Southern Ohio Correctional Facility shows an electric chair and gurney in 2001. (Photo by Mike Simons/Getty Images)

A federal appeals court on Tuesday upheld the constitutionality of Arkansas’ three-drug cocktail used for lethal injection. 

A group of Arkansas death row inmates had sued the state in 2017 to stop a spate of executions scheduled before one of the three drugs used in the lethal injection cocktail expired. 

The three-judge panel of the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals rejected inmates’ arguments that the controversial sedative midazolam would cause “needless suffering.”

The panel also ruled against inmates’ contention that the state should use a different execution drug, like the one used by the federal government.

The ruling doesn’t have a substantial impact on the current state of execution in Arkansas. It simply kept in place a 2020 lower court ruling, and no executions are currently scheduled.  

Arkansas Attorney General Leslie Rutledge welcomed Tuesday’s decision. 

“It is past time that justice be carried out in these cases of defendants killing innocent people, and the Eighth Circuit’s decision reaffirms that Arkansas’s execution protocol is constitutional,” Rutledge said in a statement. “It is time to move forward.” 

An attorney for the inmates said Tuesday afternoon he had no comment on the case. 

The lawsuit spawned from an unusual period in 2017 when Gov. Asa Hutchinson scheduled eight executions over 11 days. The lethal injections were scheduled so closely together because part of the state’s supply of execution drugs was set to expire. 

In the end, Arkansas executed four of the inmates; the other four were spared, at least temporarily, by the courts. 

Those four executions were the first in the state since 2005. 

The inmates’ lawsuit focused largely on the first of three drugs in the state’s lethal-injection cocktail. Advocates and death penalty attorneys argue the drug midazolam is harmful and tied to several problematic executions, including in Arkansas in 2017. 

When convicted murder Kenneth Williams was executed near Grady, an Associated Press reporter who witnessed it said he “lurched forward” about 20 times as the midazolam took effect.

Government officials described Williams’ movements as “involuntary muscular” reactions. 

In Arkansas, prison officials first inject death row inmates with midazolam to render the inmate unconscious. Next, the officials administers vecuronium bromide, a paralytic drug, before giving potassium chloride, which causes the prisoner’s heart to stop.

The U.S. Supreme Court and other federal courts have ruled that midazolam may be used in executions. 

Arkansas is one of 27 states where the death penalty remains legal. There are 30 inmates on Arkansas’ death row, according to the state Department of Corrections.

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Hunter Field
Hunter Field

Hunter Field is a veteran Arkansas journalist whose reporting on the state has carried him from military air strips in northwest Arkansas to soybean fields in the Arkansas delta. He spent the better part of the last decade investigating and reporting on Arkansas government and politics. For three years, he covered education policy, medical marijuana and the Arkansas General Assembly as part of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette’s Capitol Bureau. Most recently, he was the Democrat-Gazette's projects editor, leading the newspaper's investigative team. Hunter got his start in journalism covering sports for The Commercial Appeal in Memphis. A Memphis native, he enjoys smoking barbecue, kayaking and fishing in his free time.

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