Eight prisoners were scheduled to be put to death this week in Arkansas, in what would have amounted to the largest mass execution in America in half a century. Of these eight, at the time of writing, three have already been killed, four have been given temporary stays beyond the end of the month, and one further execution is scheduled to go ahead Thursday night.
Why the rush? Arkansas’s primary method of execution, like the other 30 states which have capital punishment on their statute books, is the three-drug lethal injection protocol. Securing these drugs has proved increasingly difficult in recent years, due to shortages caused by political and regulatory pressure making pharmaceutical companies reluctant to provide the drugs for the purposes of capital punishment.
Arkansan governor Asa Hutchinson sprung into action this month, scheduling the eight executions mere days before the expiry date on the state’s only available sedative, midazolam, elapses at the end of April. The third execution, of convicted murderer Marcel Williams, only took place after a last-minute legal scramble to halt it failed on Monday evening. The reason? That evening’s first scheduled execution, of Jack Jones, may have been botched, after correctional facility officers tried and failed to insert an IV line into the obese prisoner’s neck.
This most recent episode only serves to underline the increasingly farcical nature of capital punishment in the US. Lawyers for Williams argued that his execution might be unconstitutional on the grounds of “cruel and unusual punishment” – but it is increasingly obvious that the whole system of capital punishment has elements of unusual cruelty. Jones’s execution reportedly saw him moving his lips and gulping for air after the sedative was applied, amounting to what Williams’ lawyers claimed was “torturous and inhumane.”
What action can you take against this inhumane system of state-sponsored murder? Several organizations are fighting to abolish the death penalty across the nation. The National Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty works to mobilize the 90 million Americans who say the death penalty is wrong. You can add your name to the growing movement by taking the coalition’s pledge. The group also offers resources for contacting your elected officials, and engage with community organizations like faith groups.
Amnesty International is also working to put an end to the death penalty around the world. One current campaign seeks to halt the return of the death penalty in the Philippines, an issue currently in front of the country’s Senate. The International Commission Against the Death Penalty is similarly working to put an end to the practice around the world, and provides useful resources on its website, albeit with fewer calls to direct action.
Yet as with so many other issues, from climate change to nuclear non-proliferation, preventing the death penalty around the world – and especially in China, which with over 1,000 executions a year may account for half the global total – would be much easier were it prohibited in the US.
Change starts at home – and if you live in one of the thirty one with capital punishment on the statute, consider contacting your local representative. No politician wants to be seen as “weak on crime”, and murderers and rapists are one of the more problematic constituencies to advocate for. But this is all the more reason why demonstrating your support for prohibition is important. Almost 3,000 people languish on death row in the United States, and fully 158 death row inmates have been exonerated since capital punishment was reintroduced in 1973. Ultimately, it comes down to this: only by putting an end to capital punishment can you be sure that no person will ever be put to death for a crime they didn’t commit.