How Arkansas is recruiting Rotary Club volunteers to watch death row inmates die

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Little Rock Rotarians thought Arkansas Department of Corrections Director Wendy Kelley was kidding this week when she asked them to volunteer as witnesses as the state embarks on an upcoming marathon of executions scheduled in April.

Kelley wasn’t kidding.

Arkansas is scrambling to find 48 volunteers over the age of 21 to watch as the state attempts to execute by lethal injection eight death row inmates in the span of only 10 days next month. State law requires six witnesses be present for an execution to take place, Arkansas Matters reported this week. Apparently watching state-sponsored killing isn’t at the top of most people’s list of priorities.


Back-to-back lethal injections are scheduled for April 17, April 20, April 24, and April 27. As The Los Angeles Times points out, no other state has executed that many people in such a short time since the death penalty was reinstated in the U.S. in 1976.

So why the rush? Death drugs. The expiration date on Arkansas’ supply of midazolam, one of the three drugs the state uses in lethal injections, is April 30. As the newspaper notes in an editorial published on Friday:

[W]ith drugmakers refusing to sell to executioners, it’s unclear whether Arkansas can replenish its supply. So the state is in a macabre race to see which expires first: The eight condemned men or a drug it wants to use to kill them. Heaven forbid that Arkansas and other states just abandon the barbaric practice of capital punishment, as almost every country around the world has done.

All eight men, reports The New York Times, were convicted of murder and sentenced to death. Four are black and four are white. On Friday, two of them asked a parole board to spare their lives. Inmates also asked the U.S. Supreme Court to reconsider a decision not to review a state court ruling that upheld Arkansas’ lethal injection protocol, Fox 12 News reported.

Midazolam, a sedative, has been controversial for years, leading to several botched executions, including that of Joseph Wood in Arizona in 2014, who took two hours to die while gasping for air, and Ronald Bert Smith, who suffered a similar fate last December in Alabama.


Because of these incidents, drug companies have stopped selling to states for use in executions, making it hard for states like Arkansas to obtain them and carry out executions. The law requiring that six volunteers witness each execution is further complicating those efforts.

As for corrections director Kelley, it appears she’ll have to keep looking, with time running out. None of the Little Rock Rotarians took her up on the offer.

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