By James Clark, Senior Campaigner for Death Penalty Abolition
Arkansas has gone more than a decade without an execution, but a few weeks ago Governor Asa Hutchinson announced that they would resume. He didn’t just schedule one; he scheduled eight. With four execution dates in a ten-day span and two prisoners set to be put to death on each date, the governor placed these eight men on a conveyor belt of death.
The reason? An expiration date printed on the bottle of the chemical to be used for lethal injection. The state of Arkansas has exactly eight doses of Midazolam and it expires at the end of April. The governor is racing to use all eight before it goes bad.
This assembly line shocked the world. Amnesty activists across the globe joined with our partners in the death penalty abolition movement and demanded a halt to this gruesome display.
I’ve had the privilege to be in Little Rock, joining many others who’ve come to lend their support. Together, we are telling Governor Hutchinson that the world is watching his frantic rush to kill these people. I came to Little Rock with the signatures of thousands of Amnesty activists who signed our online petition to stop these executions. Amnesty joined the ACLU, Equal Justice USA, and the Arkansas Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty to deliver over 157,000 signatures to Governor Hutchinson’s desk.
On Friday, we held a rally at the capitol steps to deliver those signatures and show our collective strength and outrage to the governor. Over 400 people attended! A group of powerful speakers lent their voices to the rally — local religious leaders, innocent people who had been exonerated from death row, a family member of a murder victim, and more — all calling on the governor to stop these horrific assembly line executions.
Judith Elaine, whose brother was murdered, spoke about the false promise of “closure” to victims’ families. Despite the grandiose claims of the governor, Elaine told the crowd that no punishment can fill the loss of a loved one and, “the chair at the table will always be empty.” Indulging a desire for violent retribution is not justice.
One of the most powerful speakers of the day was Damien Echols, one of the West Memphis Three who had been wrongly convicted and sentenced to death right here in Arkansas. He lived on death row with the men scheduled for execution. “Stories of the horrors of the Arkansas justice system go on and on,” he said. “I still have nightmares about this place… But when I heard about these executions, I knew I had to come back.”
At the end of the rally Abe Bonowitz, one of Amnesty’s state death penalty abolition coordinators tolled a bell for each of the eight men scheduled for execution, as well as the victims. Striking the bell was Randy Gardner, the brother of the last man executed by firing squad in the United States.
Following the rally, we marched to deliver over 157,000 signatures. It turns out 157,000 signatures is a lot of paper — 13,000 pages! Flanked by reporters and followed by a crowd of activists, we took the boxes inside the Capitol and marched straight up the stairs to the governor’s office.
As I held the box of signatures and handed them over to those with the power to stop these executions, I was reminded that I’m here representing thousands of activists around the world. People like you, who took a stand from near and far to demand a halt to the killing. We stand taller knowing we stand together.
Later that evening, we got news of a stay of execution issued for Bruce Ward — the first in a series of rulings affecting the executions. A few hours later, a judge issued a temporary restraining order halting all of the executions based on questions of how the state of Arkansas obtained the lethal injection drugs. Although this ruling is only a temporary relief it is a step towards stopping these executions permanently. The next morning, another ruling came in from a different judge, this time in federal court. Another stay was now in place, this time on the basis of the 8th Amendment’s prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment.
Even as I write this, the legal situation remains in flux. A stay is currently in place that prohibits the state from performing the executions, but only for now. Appeals are still being argued, and the state is continuing to prepare for the executions but we are not letting up.
That’s why we are continuing to demand that Governor Hutchinson stop this outrageous plan. While legal appeals continue to wind their way through the courts, the governor can use his executive authority to stop the assembly line once and for all. Take action now to add your voice to more than 157,000 others and show Governor Hutchinson that we won’t stand by while he places human lives on a conveyor belt of death. Every execution is horrendous — the governor must protect the human rights of the people of Arkansas and commute every death sentence in his state.
To follow the latest updates on these cases and Arkansas’ rush to execution, follow Amnesty USA on Twitter at @amnestyusa. For on the ground live updates from Little Rock, and you can follow me at @jamesxtnj.