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Former Warden: Arkansas Execution Rush Is Dangerous and Risky

Arkansas' death chamber
Arkansas' death chamber
The Arkansas government is preparing to execute eight death-row prisoners in a ten-day span, before one of its lethal-injection drugs expires. It plans to execute two people per day over four days: April 17, 20, 24 and 27. The decision is dangerous for many reasons. As has been widely discussed, the sedatives may not be safe to use and could risk prolonged, torturous deaths. But an additional set of trauma and peril must be accounted for as well: The rapid schedule will put an extraordinary burden on the men and women required by the state to carry out this most solemn act, and it will increase the risk of mistakes in the execution chamber — which could haunt them for the rest of their lives.

As Commissioner of Corrections in Georgia, I presided over five executions. Those executions were spaced over two years. We had a legal duty to carry them out and attempted to do so with integrity. However, for me and many of my former colleagues in other corrections agencies, our role in executions led to a deep sense of guilt, sleepless nights and permanent emotional damage.

For me, unlike the “kill or be killed” mindset in war or other forms of self-defense, carrying out executions felt very much like participating in premeditated and rehearsed murder. Either from religious training (“thou shall not kill”) or established societal norms, every person knows that taking a human life is one of our culture’s most serious offenses. It exacts severe mental trauma — even when done under the auspices of state law. As I have written before: I don’t remember their names, but I still see their faces in my nightmares.

Ron McAndrew, a warden who oversaw executions in Florida has bravely spoken publicly about how the trauma from doing his job led to a period of alcohol abuse and nightmares about the men he had executed. Fred Allen, who worked as a member of the Texas “tie-down team” responsible for securing men before the lethal chemicals are injected, helped execute 130 men before he finally broke down and had to leave his job. Former Oregon warden Frank Thompson has written about how participating in executions leads to drug abuse, alcohol abuse, depression and suicide. Ira Craig Baxley, a former corrections major responsible for executions in South Carolina, began suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder. These examples are only a small sampling.

I am gravely concerned for the well-being of the execution team in Arkansas, especially given the compressed schedule. The amount of fear, stress and exhaustion — all compounded by the terror of making a mistake — is too much to ask.

The state’s plan is relentless and harsh in and of itself. But when you examine the drugs that state officials are rushing to use, the risk of harm gets even worse.

The reason for Arkansas’s planned 10-day mass execution is that a sedative called midazolam is going to expire at the end of April. Midazolam has been used in many executions that went horribly wrong, including in Ohio, Arizona, Alabama and elsewhere. In Oklahoma, on April 29, 2014, Clayton Lockett did not die until more than a half-hour after he was injected with midazolam. Well after he was expected to be unconscious, he groaned, convulsed, and visibly struggled while on the execution table.

Lockett’s execution was scheduled to be the first of two performed back-to-back that day. The Oklahoma Department of Public Safety’s subsequent investigation includes a section, “Two Executions Scheduled on the Same Day,” which includes interviews with the execution team members. They discuss the “added stress” and “urgency” that they felt because of the rate of executions. In order to decrease chances of future botched executions, the report recommends that executions should not be scheduled fewer than seven days apart.

Arkansas has never used midazolam before, and the state has not executed anyone for twelve years. State officials have put this intense execution schedule on a staff that has not conducted an execution in the state using this risky protocol in over a decade. They will be using drugs they have not used before, which no one , as far as we know, has experience administering in an execution.

Arkansas’s accelerated execution schedule is far more risky and dangerous than any other planned executions I am aware of. I implore state officials to abandon this dangerous plan. They can still save truly innocent people — corrections workers — from life-altering trauma.

Source: TIME, Allen Ault, March 28, 2017. Dr. Ault, a former warden of a maximum security prison, served as a commissioner of the Georgia, Mississippi and Colorado Departments of Corrections and later as chief of the Special Projects Division of the National Institute of Corrections; he recently retired from being dean of the College of Justice and Safety at Eastern Kentucky University.


Legal Battle Looms Ahead of Arkansas Executions


Executions have been set for (top row, from left) Kenneth Williams, Jack Jones Jr., Marcell Williams, Bruce Earl Ward, and (bottom row, from left) Don Davis, Stacey Johnson, Jason McGehee and Ledelle Lee.
Executions have been set for (top row, from left) Kenneth Williams,
Jack Jones Jr., Marcell Williams, Bruce Earl Ward, and (bottom row, from
left) Don Davis, Stacey Johnson, Jason McGehee and Ledelle Lee.
The state with some of the highest incarceration rates ranks second to last for crime and corrections.

As Arkansas prepares to execute eight condemned convicts before an end of April deadline, the state faces numerous obstacles, including a lack of required execution witnesses and, most recently, a legal battle.

In the most recent turn of events, the inmates, who are set to receive lethal injections within a 10-day span, asked a federal judge Monday for a preliminary injunction. Their attorneys say the quick schedule of events violates their constitutional rights, the Associated Press reports.

Gov. Asa Hutchinson is racing the clock to complete the executions, two at a time, before the state's supply of midazolam, a drug used in the injections, expires.

"The rushed schedule appreciably increases the risk of harm to plaintiffs, falls far outside the bounds of modern penological practice, and disrespects the plaintiff's fundamental dignity - defects that all run against the Eighth Amendment's protection," the prisoners' attorneys said.

One of the inmates, Ledelle Lee, 51, was convicted of killing his neighbor by beating her with a tire iron more than 30 times. Jack Harold Jones Jr., 52, received the death sentence for murdering a bookkeeper, who police found naked from the waist down with a cord around her neck, according to the Associated Press. 4 of the convicts are black, 2 white.

Meanwhile, Hutchinson also is evaluating clemency requests from Lee and 1 of the other prisoners, though the Arkansas Parole Board recommends that he deny them. Three of the other inmates will hear their recommendations from the board next week.

Due to legal issues and a lack of legal injection drugs, Arkansas hasn't had an execution since 2006, according to the Death Penalty Information Center. If Hutchinson's schedule remains the same, Arkansas will be the 1st state to execute this many prisoners within 10 days.

Arkansas, which ranks 2nd to last in U.S. News' Best States rankings for crime and corrections, ranks No. 13 on the list of most executions by state - 27 executions since the death penalty was reinstated in 1976. Texas has had the most executions by far, with 542, followed by Oklahoma and Virginia at 112 and Florida at 92.

These states with high execution levels also generally do not rank highly in the Best States crime and corrections rankings, which look at state crime levels and the efficiency of their prison systems.

Though Virginia ranks No. 6 for crime and corrections, Texas ranks No. 31, Oklahoma No. 40 and Florida No. 37.

States with the most executions also tend to have some of the highest incarceration rates. Texas ranks No. 44, with about 584 prisoners under state or federal jurisdiction per 100,000 residents. Oklahoma ranks even lower at No. 49, with around 700 prisoners out of the same number of residents.

But Arkansas ranks even lower in many of the crime and corrections measures than any of the 10 states with the most executions. It nears the bottom in almost every category, ranking in the bottom 10 for corrections, crime, incarceration rate, parole completion and more.

Source: US News & World Report, March 29, 2017


Former Virginia executioner concerned about expedited schedule of Arkansas executions


Jerry Givens
Jerry Givens
He was responsible for putting 62 people to death from 1982 to 1999 in the Commonwealth of Virginia. 

Now Jerry Givens takes a strong stance against the death penalty; his concerns center on the stress put on correctional employees and the potential of putting innocent people to death.

Givens job as Virginia's lead executioner came to a halt in 1999 when he was implicated and convicted in a money laundering case involving the purchase of a vehicle - he would end up spending 4 years in prison, in the exact opposite spot of his correctional officer position prior to conviction.

But even though Givens didn't leave his job as lead executioner on his own free will, if given the chance to do it again, for Givens it would be a hard no.

"I killed these people," said Givens. "I took syringes and I pushed poison into these people until they were dead - I killed them. On the death certificate it said homicide, so that made me a murderer."

Givens said there was always immense stress both leading up to and following each of the 62 executions he performed in Virginia - many by electrocution and others by lethal injection.

When it comes to lethal injection, Givens said there was an extremely large amount of room for error. Doctors would not perform the execution, given the fact it goes against their code of ethics, meaning the job was put in the hands of simple correctional officers without any medical training.

"You've got non-professional people, just ordinary people, doing a professional job," said Givens. "So you're going to have mistakes."

Givens mentioned most of the mistakes he and his crew made were during electric chair executions.

The biggest mistake Givens is concerned with is potentially putting an innocent man to death. Givens almost did that when he was scheduled to execute Earl Washington Jr. - a man with an IQ of 69 who confessed to a rape and murder that he was later exonerated of due to DNA evidence.

"Just say I had taken Earl Washington's life," pondered Givens. "There's no way I could go back and tell Earl Washington, I'm sorry for what I've done."

Washington's averted execution and the executions of the 62 people that Givens actually did put to death, have weighed on Givens' mind ever since. Givens said he's concerned Arkansas Department of Correction employees will experience the same mental stress - stress that has caused suicide among some correctional officers and others to quit the profession.

"There's other ways to make these guys suffer through the rest of their lives," said Givens.

Source: KATV news, March 29, 2017


Arkansas executioners will suffer like I did, warns former corrections head


Arkansas plans to execute 8 men in 11 days. Allen Ault, who gave the order to kill 5 men in Georgia, says that death penalty staff's mental health is at risk

It's been more than 20 years since Dr Allen Ault stood in a death chamber and gave the order for the execution to go ahead.

"I said, 'It's time,' and the electrician threw the switch."

Despite the passage of so many years, he feels troubled to this day by what he did. "I had a lot of guilt, my conscience totally bothered me," he said. "When the switch was thrown that 1st time, and I realized I had just killed a man, that was pretty traumatic. Then to have to do it again and again and again, it got so that I absolutely could not go through with it."

As commissioner of the department of corrections in Georgia, Ault gave the order for 5 executions by electric chair in 1994 and 1995. After the fifth life was taken, the cumulative distress reached breaking point and he resigned from the post and moved to a job in the US justice department that had nothing to do with the death penalty.

Since then, he has found himself haunted by the memory of the 5 men whose lives he ended. "I don't remember their names, but I still see them in my nightmares," he said.

Now those nightmares are back in force, triggered by the knowledge that what Ault considers to be a disaster-in-the-making is about to unfold in Arkansas. Next month, the state's Republican governor, Asa Hutchinson, has scheduled no fewer than 8 executions over 11 days - a conveyor belt of killing dispensed at a clip not seen in the US for at least 1/2 a century.

The executions are set to take place by lethal injection at a rate of 2 a day over 4 separate days. On 17 April, it will be the turn of the inmates Don Davis and Bruce Ward; on 20 April, Stacey Johnson and Ledell Lee; 24 April, Marcel Williams and Jack Jones; 27 April, Jason McGehee and Kenneth Williams.

One of Ault's prime concerns relates not to the 8 convicted capital murderers who are set to die, but to the men and women of the execution team who are being asked, just as he was 2 decades ago, to kill in the name of justice. "To ask corrections officials in Arkansas to kill 8 people, 2 a day - as someone who went through this, I can't tell you how deeply concerned I am for their mental health," he said.

"As the old saying goes," he went on, "you dig 2 graves: 1 for the condemned, 1 for the avenger. That's what will happen to this execution team - many of them will figuratively have to dig their own grave too."

Ault said his role at the head of the team that had killed 5 men left him feeling "lower than the most despicable person". He felt degraded to a level below that of the heinous murderers he was confronting, a sense that was amplified by how much planning went into the protocols. "I had a manual about an inch thick that I had to follow. What I did was much more premeditated than any of the murders committed by those I executed."

Then there was the defenselessness of the man on the gurney: "You are taking a totally defenseless person, planning, premeditating, even rehearsing, then killing him - any sane person other than a psychopath would be dramatically affected by that."

The Arkansas governor has so far given scant details about how he intends to deal with the intense psychological burden he is placing on the shoulders of the state's execution team, beyond indicating that counseling will be available. When the Guardian put a series of questions to Hutchinson, including what was being done to protect the execution team from potential mental or emotional harm, a spokesman declined to answer.

All the spokesman would say was that the governor had no intention of talking to the national or international media before next month's executions, on the grounds that there was nothing to discuss. "There's no debate here - this is not like the future of healthcare in America. The governor has the duty to carry out these executions that were decided by a jury. This is the law of Arkansas and of the federal government of the United States."

In previous statements, the governor's office has argued that it will be "more efficient and less stressful" for those involved in carrying out the killing to see them through in quick succession. Given his rich personal experience, that sounds like arrogant negligence to Allen Ault.

"If the governor is so hot on this, he ought to go down to the death chamber and do it himself. But he won't, they don't, they never do. Politicians are never in the room when it happens, they never have to suffer anything."

Ault found that several members of his team were so troubled by the part they played in snuffing out life that they required therapeutic help, and 1 senior member of the corrections department had to be relieved of his job. He has seen the same pattern of damaged psyches repeated in death penalty states across the country. He personally knew, he said, 3 former corrections officials who participated, to their distress, in executions and went on to take their own lives.

The psychological impact on execution teams is one of the least discussed aspects of capital punishment in the US, yet arguably one of the most disturbing. There Will Be No Stay, a documentary film released last year, profiles 2 former majors in South Carolina's department of corrections Swat team who sued the state for allegedly pressuring them into assisting in multiple executions with minimal training and no counselling (the case was eventually dismissed by a judge).

Craig Baxley, who was responsible for plunging the lethal injection syringe into at least 8 prisoners, has himself attempted suicide and is now on 6 types of medication for PTSD and depression. One detail of his years working in the death chamber stuck in his mind: the cause of mortality given on the inmates' death certificates was always the same: "homicide".

The other major, Terry Bracey, told the film-makers he had struggled with the effects of trauma for years: "I expected to be trained and counseled - none of that took place. Taking that plunger and pushing it in set me on a course I wasn't prepared for."

Screenshot from "Monster's Ball",  by Marc Forster (2001)
Screenshot from "Monster's Ball",  by Marc Forster (2001)
The members of the Arkansas execution team are shrouded in anonymity, as they are in all death penalty states. 

Typically, the group consists of a "tie-down team" who escort the prisoner from his cell to the death chamber and then strap him to the gurney; medically trained personnel who set the intravenous lines; and those, like Bracey and Baxley, who sit on the other side of a glass wall and press the buttons to inject the lethal drugs into the prisoner once the team leader gives the order.

Frank Thompson gave that order twice when he was superintendent of Oregon state penitentiary - the only 2 completed executions in that state in over 50 years. Thompson said he could not comment on the specifics of the Arkansas team, but he was clear that based on his own experiences, they needed to be extremely careful.

Several of the members of his own team quit their jobs in the fallout of what they went through. Despite the intensive training he put them through, he said he was ultimately unable to spare them the brutalizing consequences.

"There is absolutely no way to conduct a well-run execution without causing at least 1 person to lose a little bit of their humanity, or to start at least 1 person on the cumulative path to post-traumatic stress. So for Arkansas to do this 8 times in 10 days, to me that is unimaginable - it is compounding the stress, laying traumatic experiences on top of each other."

Such trauma often manifests itself in fevered sleep and harrowing dreams. Rich Robertson recalls being hounded by a recurring nightmare after the then local TV reporter witnessed the last use of the gas chamber in Arizona in 1999 - he watched a prisoner named Walter LaGrand being engulfed in a light fog of cyanide, then gagging forcefully and flailing from side to side before slumping forward into unconsciousness.

Robertson described his dream to the Guardian: "I was standing at a window with venetian blinds just like the actual gas chamber, and the blinds opened up and I could see a crib in the middle of the room. There was a baby in the crib with lines running from its arms and legs that ran to a set of levers on the wall, and standing there was an evil-looking clown throwing the switches."

It's not just potential psychological damage that is raising the alarm over the Arkansas plans. Legal experts also fear that the unseemly rush could greatly increase the risk of mistakes leading to botched procedures.

Arkansas's supply of the execution drug Midazolam is due to expire at the end of April and further stocks will be hard to secure because of a boycott by European drug companies.

Hutchinson's professed reason for the tight schedule is that the state's batch of midazolam, a sedative used in many recent US executions, reaches its expiration date at the end of April and fresh supplies of the drug will be hard to secure because of the boycott of US corrections departments by pharmaceutical companies and foreign governments. Yet even without the added complications that can come from haste, midazolam has a patchy reputation in capital punishment.

It was the same drug that was deployed in the gruesome killing of Clayton Lockett in Oklahoma in 2014, in which the inmate writhed and groaned on the gurney for 43 minutes. The state's subsequent investigation found that one factor behind the calamity was that the execution team had been placed under undue stress as they were primed to carry out 2 judicial killings on the same day. "Due to manpower and facility concerns, executions should not be scheduled within 7 calendar days of each other," the report concluded.

"The example of Oklahoma should be very troubling for Arkansas officials," said Dale Baich, a defense attorney who represented Joseph Wood, who died in similarly grotesque circumstances in a botched execution involving midazolam in Arizona that same year. "What will happen if the 1st prisoner has the same sort of reaction as Wood or Lockett - will the governor press ahead with the next execution? This rush to execute is foolish and irresponsible."

Jennifer Moreno, a staff attorney with the Berkeley Law death penalty clinic, said that by choosing to use midazolam, Arkansas had opted for a protocol that had no margin of error. "When you add to that the pressure of executing 8 men in 11 days, you are just asking for something to go wrong - they are putting their team in a really difficult spot."

The 8 condemned men on Monday lodged a new lawsuit in a federal court in Arkansas seeking to prevent Hutchinson from going ahead with his plan. The complaint warns that the intense stress placed on the execution team, and the lack of a pause between killings to allow for review, will heighten the risk of the inmates suffering unconstitutional cruel and unusual punishment as they die.

"The people who will make up the execution team will be called upon to take part in the killing of an otherwise healthy human being, under intense scrutiny and pressure, in a process that they have little to no prior experience with, using a drug that has not been used before for executions in this state. And then they are going to be asked to do it again. And then come back to work and do it again. And again. And again. And again. And again. And finally again, for the 8th time."

Source: The Guardian, March 29, 2017


Arkansas Faces Lawsuits Over Plan To Kill 8 Men In 10 Days


One expert called the state's death penalty plans "mind-boggling."

Arkansas' plan to execute 8 death-row prisoners within 10 days next month has been attacked as cruel and unusual in 2 federal lawsuits.

Suits filed Monday and Tuesday seek preliminary injunctions halting the four double executions scheduled from April 17 to April 27, alleging the rush violates the condemned men's constitutional rights. The suits name Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson (R) and Department of Corrections Director Wendy Kelley as defendants.

At a time when use of the death penalty is in gradual decline across the U.S., Arkansas Attorney General Leslie Rutledge announced last month the state would begin executing inmates who had exhausted state-level appeals. Arkansas hasn't executed anyone in 12 years, and now seeks to jump-start lethal injections in ways that depart from its own protocols and the typical practices of other states.

"This is way outside the norms," said Rick Halperin, a death penalty expert at Southern Methodist University, said of the Arkansas execution schedule. "This state hasn't carried out an execution in 12 years. Now they want to do 8 in 10 days. It's a bit mind-boggling."

Double executions are uncommon, even in active death-penalty states like Texas. After Oklahoma's botched lethal injection of Clayton Lockett in 2014 - which had been part of a scheduled double execution - Texas recommended spacing its executions at least a week apart. Missouri recently adopted a rule limiting executions to no more than once a month.

The lawsuits against Arkansas say the pace of the scheduled executions and the state's secretive lethal injection protocol violates inmates' rights to counsel and access to courts.

The state Department of Corrections did not respond to several requests for comment.

Attorneys for the prisoners say there simply won't be enough time to defend each client in the complex and fast-moving legal process that death warrants trigger.

Attorney Jeff Rosenzweig, a sole practitioner who represents 3 of the 8 men scheduled to die and is co-counsel for a 4th, said the scheduled procedures are inconsistent with how the state used to run executions. Back in the 1990s, he said, prison authorities were mostly "extremely cooperative" allowing lawyers access to the inmates, informing counsel of developments and [allowing] more than 1 lawyer to witness the execution.

"Of course, this was all before a couple of things," Rosenzweig said by phone Tuesday. "There was a legislative decision to slap a veil of secrecy over so much of [the process]. And secondly, in terms of communication with the court, we weren't dealing with a substance that was" as controversial - the drug used to make the lethal injection cocktail.

Attorneys from the federal public defender's office represent 2 of the condemned inmates and serve as co-counsel for 2 others, including a pair of clients set to be executed on the same day.

"Attorneys with multiple clients "will potentially be required to challenge the execution process up until moments before, or even during, the execution itself," one of the lawsuits says. "Then they will have to continue challenging that process for another client just minutes after watching another client die."

Dale Baich, an assistant federal defender in Arizona who has worked on death-row cases for 3 decades, said what the attorneys are being asked is "impossible to do."

"To have three clients [facing execution] in a week ... it's outrageous," Baich said. "It's unprecedented."

The short notice also reduces time for the clemency process, which violates the inmates' right to due process, according to the lawsuit filed Tuesday.

The Corrections Department will only allow 1 attorney in the death chamber for each execution. Other states don't generally restrict who the condemned selects as witnesses (family, friends, lawyers and spiritual advisors are typical), but do limit the number of witnesses due to the small capacity of most witness rooms. Capacity for Arkansas, lawyers said, doesn't appear to be a credible issue, as the state can't even find enough volunteers to serve as witnesses.

5 of the 8 men scheduled to die have filed clemency petitions. Hearings on the petitions are scheduled in the 30 days prior to their scheduled executions - a window normally blacked out, lawyers said. Attorneys further argued they are restricted to 1 hour to present evidence supporting clemency for each client, instead of the normal 2.

Source: Huffington Post, March 29, 2017

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