At some very near date, Arkansas and Oklahoma — and the country as a whole — will have to decide what they are going to do about the death penalty.
In Oklahoma, prosecutors and juries seem intent on continuing to levy the penalty, but that turns out not to be enough. On Tuesday, (March 18) the Oklahoma Court of Criminal Appeals rescheduled the execution of two death-row inmates because, as it wrote, “the attorney general’s attestations give this court no confidence the state will be able to procure the necessary drugs before the scheduled executions are carried out,” according to The Associated Press.
The two inmates requested a stay, but technically, the court deemed the requests moot because the drugs were unlikely to be available. It delayed the executions by a month.
Oklahoma prison officials are having trouble obtaining pentobarbital, a sedative, and vercunronium bromide, a muscle relaxant, according to the AP. A third ingredient in the lethal cocktail is potassium chloride, which is used to stop the heart.
State attorneys have said that if the state has to use different drugs, it will have to write a new execution protocol; it likely would be challenged in court.
In July, Arkansas Attorney General Dustin McDaniel, speaking to the Arkansas Sheriffs Association, described the Arkansas death penalty system as “completely broken.”
“Frankly I don’t think we’re telling jurors the truth when we lead them to believe that they are sentencing someone to death when we really don’t have a viable system with which to execute someone,” Mr. McDaniel said then.
Arkansas has 33 inmates on death row, according the the Arkansas Department of Correction.
In addition to the difficulty with getting the execution drugs, Mr. McDaniel noted that the American Medical Association says it is unethical for physicians to participate in ending someone’s life.
In June, Gov. Mike Beebe said he would not set execution dates because of litigation over Arkansas’ execution law and problems with its death penalty protocol, according to an Arkansas News Bureau report. His decision followed action by New Jersey-based West-Ward Pharmaceuticals to refuse to sell drugs to the Department of Correction when it learned the state planned to use the drugs for executions.
On Thursday, the Texas Department of Criminal Justice confirmed it had obtained a new batch of the drugs it uses in executions, but refused to identify the source, according to the AP. In 2013, Texas executed 16 killers.
Without knowing the source of this new shipment, it is of course impossible to know how long availability might last or whether the new drugs would face new legal challenges.
These logistical issues do not begin to examine the many arguments in support of or against the death penalty as it is applied from state to state and at the federal level. But they may determine the outcome of the discussion. Unless new sources appear or people are willing to return to earlier forms of execution including electrocution, shooting and hanging, it’s clear that Attorney General McDaniel’s assessment of the system as broken will remain valid.
It is past time to have the hard conversation about the cost and the logistical difficulties with the death penalty. At that time we also should have the conversation about whether this is something we should do. It’s not enough to say we have done so and thus we should continue. We need to make a deliberate decision: Can we — and should we?