Arkansas is set to execute eight men in a 10-day period this month in order to use the state’s execution drugs before they expire. In Arkansas’s protocol, the drug midazolam is supposed to induce unconsciousness before the other drugs are administered to stop the inmate’s breathing and their heart. Midazolam slows brain activity and allows for relaxation and sleep, but according to the Food and Drug Administration, it is not approved for use as an anesthetic by itself.
Midazolam has been involved in several botched executions, including the case of Clayton Lockett from Oklahoma, who lived for about 45 minutes after he was administered lethal injection drugs. He was seen convulsing and writhing before dying of a heart attack. Other problematic executions involving midazolam include the execution Joseph Wood in Arizona (which took two hours) as well as the execution of Dennis McGuire in Ohio.
Beyond the problems with the drug protocol and the rush to execute in Arkansas, Harvard’s Fair Punishment Project recently released a report about the eight men scheduled to die there: “At least five of the eight cases involve a person who appears to suffer from a serious mental illness or intellectual impairment. One of these men was twenty at the time of the crime, suffered a serious head injury, and has a 70 IQ score. Another man suffers from paranoid schizophrenia and believes that he is on a mission from God. He sees both his deceased father and reincarnated dogs around the prison.”
The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that executing individuals with intellectual disabilities is a violation of the Eighth Amendment of the Constitution. The Court has also ruled it unconstitutional to execute individuals who do not have a basic competency to understand why they are being put to death.
Director of the Fair Punishment Project Rob Smith writes, “The Supreme Court reaffirmed that the death penalty is supposed to be reserved for the most culpable offenders, and yet it is very clear that individuals facing execution in Arkansas suffer from a number of crippling impairments that show they do not even come close to meeting that bar.”
The report also notes that the lawyering in some of these Arkansas cases was just bad. Some of the trial lawyers failed to perform basic duties, neglected to hire mitigation specialists to evaluate their client’s mental health, and did not talk to the defendants’ family members about their clients’ mental health histories.
The issues with mental health and the death penalty currently on display in these Arkansas cases confirm the importance of the work of the Tennessee Alliance for the Severe Mental Illness Exclusion (TASMIE) coalition to exclude individuals with the most severe mental illnesses from the death penalty.
In this legislative session, Senators Richard Briggs and Janice Bowling sponsored SB 378 to excluded those with severe mental illness from the death penalty, not only providing a safeguard for these very sick individuals but also potentially sparing victims’ families decades of capital litigation while saving taxpayers millions. The bill did not come up for a vote, but instead, the Senate Judiciary will conduct a study before next legislative session to hear more testimony about the merits of this bill. Without such an exclusion moving forward, Tennessee will face the same problems as Arkansas as the state continues to sentence those with severe mental illness to death.
ACT NOW to help stop the assembly line of execution planning by Arkansas Governor Asa Hutchinson, please click the link and take a few seconds to fill out this petition: http://act.ejusa.org/p/dia/action3/common/public/?action_KEY=24486&track=ActionAR8in10-EM