By James Clark, Senior Campaigner for Death Penalty Abolition
Monday night, Arkansas attempted its first execution in more than a decade. Don Davis, on death row for the 1990 murder of Jane Daniel, was moved to the prison unit where executions take place and was served his last meal. Minutes before the execution warrant expired at midnight, the US Supreme Court issued a ruling that officially halted the execution.
I traveled to Little Rock to support local advocates and represent thousands of Amnesty activists around the country and the world who have demanded a halt to executions in Arkansas. What I saw there demonstrated yet again what Amnesty International has known for decades: the death penalty is a sickening disregard for the dignity of human beings and a violation of fundamental human rights.
Weeks ago, Arkansas Governor Asa Hutchinson scheduled eight executions in a 10-day span, with the goal of using the state’s entire supply of lethal injection drugs before it expires. Legal experts and advocates around the world denounced this schedule as an assembly line of death, one that would increase the risk of a “botched” execution, and would have far-reaching repercussions that could not be predicted. The governor dismissed these concerns.
On Monday as we prepared for the possibility of an execution, I joined local activists from the Arkansas Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty for a vigil at the governor’s mansion. I stood with a handful of dedicated activists in the rain with a few television news crews, waiting for a definitive ruling from the courts and trying to get up-to-the-minute information.
Throughout the weekend and on Monday, a flurry of legal rulings had come in from state and federal courts that created a legal situation in constant flux. Stays were granted and withdrawn on appeal, some applying to one or two of the scheduled executions and some applying to all eight. By the time we gathered at the governor’s mansion, though, a stay was in place for Monday’s executions and we were waiting on one final ruling from the US Supreme Court. The state had decided not to contest the stay for Bruce Ward, also scheduled for execution Monday, but insisted that Don Davis be put to death. It was left up to the Supreme Court, and we waited to hear.
With no official word coming from the state, it was left to reporters to get information out using social media. But the information we received can only be described as disturbing.
For one thing, as the clock got closer and closer to the 12:00am deadline for execution, reporters tweeted that prison officials continued to express confidence that the execution would continue. Even at 11:45, with only 15 minutes remaining to legally perform the execution, officials continued to assure the press that there was “ample time” to conduct a lethal injection. But when reporters asked how much time the execution would actually take, prison officials had no comment.
State officials seemed unconcerned that lethal injections using this drug combination have gone wrong in other states and taken far longer than planned — indeed, the state has never shown concern for this fact.
Corrections staff not only assured reporters they had all the time they needed, they even prepared to perform the lethal injection while a stay of execution was still in place. Reporters tweeted that witnesses were moved into the execution chamber, ready to watch an execution that never happened.
Don Davis was moved earlier in the day from death row in the Varner Unit to the site of executions at the Cummins Unit. He was even served his last meal. In one bizarre piece of information coming from the reporters on the scene, the Corrections Department apparently provided strawberry cake — the same dessert requested by Davis in his last meal.
Finally, only minutes before the execution warrant expired, the US Supreme Court upheld the stay of execution for Don Davis and the execution was called off. Up to that moment, less than 15 minutes before midnight, the Corrections Department spokespeople assured the media that they had time to perform an execution.
While the US Supreme Court ruling applied to Davis and the state had dropped its attempts to execute Ward, the previous rulings preventing all the executions had now been overruled. That means that while both of Monday’s executions were called off, five more men remain under threat of execution. But the legal situation remains fluid, and new rulings could come down at any time.
We breathed a sigh of relief together at the end of the night when we finally went to bed, but we knew the fight wasn’t over. Governor Hutchinson denounced the Court’s decision and seemed more determined than ever to carry out the remaining five executions.
And as we look ahead to the two executions scheduled on Thursday and three more next week, one thing continues to strike me. Governor Hutchinson’s attitude, the attitude that permeates every statement issued by state agencies, can only be called cavalier. With blithe confidence, they dismiss every concern for the dignity and humanity of the men on death row. This is not just an execution — as if that wasn’t enough of a violation of human rights and human dignity. This is a conveyor belt for human beings that the governor considers “expired.”