On April 17, the state of Arkansas plans to kill Don Davis and Bruce Earl Ward, two men who have been on death row since the early 1990s. Neither has applied for clemency. Both will die on the same gurney, back to back, if all goes according to plan. Executioners will start by injecting them with a sedative called midazolam, never before used by the state, but which is supposed to render them unconscious for the two lethal drugs to follow. No one, apart from a handful of officials, knows where the drugs will come from, or who exactly will do the injecting. Those are secrets under the law. Most importantly, no one knows how well the midazolam will work, if it works at all. After 12 years without a single execution, Arkansas is embarking on a kind of human experiment.
If there are risks to this plan, Arkansas Governor Asa Hutchison has wasted little time contemplating them. Three nights after the double execution, Ledelle Lee and Stacey Johnson are scheduled to die the same way, on April 20, followed by another two men, Marcel Williams and Jack Jones Jr., on April 24. Finally, if all goes according to plan, Kenneth Williams will be executed on the 27th. An eighth man, Jason McGehee, was supposed to die with him, but this week he was granted a reprieve. As it now stands, seven men will die in the Arkansas death house this month, over the course of 11 days.
The sudden rush to execute stems from a practical dilemma: Arkansas’s supply of midazolam is set to expire at the end of the month. If the governor lets that happen, officials will have to find a new supply of drugs for lethal injection, an increasingly challenging task that has kept executions on hold for years. In the 12 years since the state’s last execution, officials seem to be getting rusty, even when it comes to basic PR. Facing a shortage of necessary witnesses for its upcoming executions, Department of Corrections Director Wendy Kelly asked startled members of a Little Rock rotary club last month if anyone would be willing to attend the executions. “It quickly became obvious that she was not kidding,” one man said.
If Arkansas officials now find themselves in uncharted waters, they are also reviving a old local tradition. It was not so long ago that prisoners were once executed two and three at a time, using techniques believed to be humane, even cutting edge, despite signs to the contrary. As in other death penalty states, generations of politicians in Arkansas have passed law after law mandating experimental new killing tools hastily borrowed from other states, while tasking others to implement them. Governors have ignored red flags, insisting they are bound by law to set execution dates, regardless of circumstance, then discovered things don’t go according to plan.
Part of this history can be found at the Arkansas Studies Institute in downtown Little Rock, a modern renovation of two historic buildings on President Clinton Avenue. The vast collection includes boxes of old materials belonging to the Arkansas Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty: decades of prison mail, meeting minutes, and a handful of correspondence with Hutchison’s predecessors. In one letter, from 1989, Governor Bill Clinton responds to a prominent activist and longtime friend Freddie Nixon, who had urged him to intervene on behalf of a black man on death row named Barry Lee Fairchild, whom many believed to be innocent. “As you know our positions differ,” Clinton wrote back, “and I ask that you respect the prayer and deliberation on which mine is based.”