LITTLE ROCK, Ark. (AP) — A lawyer for Arkansas' prison system asked the state Supreme Court on Thursday to allow eight executions to proceed, telling justices that questions about one of the state's execution drugs have been adequately addressed by judges elsewhere in the U.S.
Arkansas has until June 30 to execute the inmates with drugs it currently has on-hand. Fifteen doses of the paralytic vecuronium bromide expire at the end of next month, and the state's supplier has said it will not provide anymore.
Justices questioned whether they should rule on the issue if experts couldn't agree on whether another drug used in the state's three-drug execution protocol, the surgical sedative midazolam, renders inmates fully unconscious before harsher drugs kill them. The eight death-row inmates have sued the state, saying its protocol could amount to unconstitutional cruel and unusual punishment.
"Have we ever reversed when we've had dueling experts?" Justice Courtney Hudson Goodson asked as she and a colleague wondered aloud whether a lower court should hold another hearing. "We have conflicting expert testimony."
Arkansas Solicitor General Lee Rudofsky noted that five other courts, including the U.S. Supreme Court, have said midazolam is appropriate to use during executions. He said experts agreed in those cases that "midazolam renders one insensate to the second and third drugs."
Rudofsky also said additional hearings are unnecessary, arguing that the inmates' requests for more information about the drugs were simply part of "an effort going on to stop manufacturers and suppliers, though intimidation and threats, to sell drugs" to the Arkansas Department of Correction.
Death-row inmates have said they fear midazolam cannot fully mask the pain caused when other drugs shut down the lungs and heart. The Arkansas inmates filed a lawsuit that also argues the state reneged on a 2013 pledge to share information about where it obtains its execution drugs, even though state law blocks prisons from releasing the information.
Rudofsky said that under the law, Arkansas should be able to use its existing execution protocol because the inmates have failed to give the state a reasonable alternative that could be less painful.
John Williams, representing the inmates, told the court that one alternative could be the firing squad — noting that an inmate was shot and killed by a guard in a recent escape attempt. "Certainly they can kill an inmate that way in a controlled environment," he said.
Rudofsky said a legitimate plan would need to be laid out to reduce inmate suffering during an execution.
"There is no suggestion that a firing squad today is a known and available alternative that is feasible and readily implemented by the ADC," he said.
Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson set dates last year for the first executions since 2005, but they were later put on hold amid the legal challenge.
It's unclear when the court may rule. Even if the court issues a special ruling, the state would have no more than six weeks to execute the eight inmates before its vecuronium bromide expires. Only Texas has executed eight prisoners in a month; the state did so twice in 1997.
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