- Associated Press - Saturday, April 15, 2017

LITTLE ROCK, Ark. (AP) - The topsy-turvy legal wrangling surrounding Arkansas’ unprecedented effort to execute eight men in 11 days is par for the course in a state where the death penalty has been in a holding pattern for more than a decade, despite strong support for capital punishment among voters and elected officials.

Uncertainty still surrounds the unprecedented execution timeline, which was set to begin Monday night and continue through April 27. If carried out, they would be the most executions carried out by a state in that timeframe since the U.S. Supreme Court reinstated the death penalty in 1976.

The plan remains in limbo after a state judge blocked the use of a lethal injection drug a supplier says was improperly obtained and a federal judge said inmates could pursue a claim they’re at risk of “severe pain.”

Republican Gov. Asa Hutchinson scheduled the executions to occur before the state’s supply of midazolam, a sedative used in the three-drug lethal injection process, expires at the end of the month. The inmates have challenged the compressed timeline and the use of the drug, which has been used in flawed executions in other states. Pharmaceutical companies don’t want their drugs used in the upcoming executions.

The execution dates come nearly four years after the state’s previous attorney general vented that legal challenges and a shortage of drugs used in lethal injections made it unlikely the state would execute any inmates in the near future.

“I continue to support the death penalty, but it’s time to be frank. Our death penalty system as it currently exists is completely broken,” Dustin McDaniel told a group of sheriffs from around the state in 2013.

Then-Gov. Mike Beebe that year announced he would have signed legislation outlawing capital punishment if it ever reached his desk - a prospect that was unlikely even before Republicans took control of the state Legislature. The Democratic ex-legislator and former attorney general said his thinking on the subject had changed after he signed death warrants, though the executions never took place.

“It is an agonizing process whether you are for the death penalty or against the death penalty,” Beebe said.

It’s clear that Arkansas supports the death penalty, like many other Southern states. Polling by the University of Arkansas in 2015 showed that a broad majority supported executions, and the death penalty was not an issue when Hutchinson ran for office a year earlier.

In an order Saturday setting aside the executions, U.S. District Judge Kristine Baker made it clear from the start that she wasn’t attempting to decide whether executions were a proper way to punish Arkansas’ worst criminals.

“The death penalty is constitutional,” she said, citing a U.S. Supreme Court decision that authorized the use of the surgical sedative midazolam. “Competency issues aside, plaintiffs are eligible to receive it. Each of these … men was convicted by a jury of their peers and then sentenced to death.”

Between the Christian observances of Good Friday and Easter, she wrote that “inherently barbaric punishments” weren’t allowed: “burning at the stake, drawing and quartering, and crucifixion.”

And she added that it is only up to Arkansans whether executions will continue.

“The court is mindful of the fact that the state of Arkansas has not executed an inmate since 2005, despite consistent support for capital punishment from Arkansawyers and their elected representatives. It is their right to decide whether the death penalty should be a form of punishment in Arkansas, not the court’s,” she said.

What those executions will look like was considered in political circles in 2014, when lawyer David Sterling suggested during his run for the Republican nomination for attorney general that Arkansas return to electrocutions.

“The electric chair has withstood constant constitutional scrutiny throughout the country for many, many decades. And so with it being available as a method of execution, I’m not sure why we’re not employing it,” Sterling said then.

Leslie Rutledge, who won the GOP nomination and is now defending the state’s execution push as attorney general, disagreed.

“The electric chair is in a museum, and that’s where it belongs,” Rutledge said that year.


Andrew DeMillo has covered Arkansas government and politics for The Associated Press since 2005. Follow him at www.twitter.com/ademillo

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