“What a fine thing capital punishment is! Dead men never repent; dead men never bring awkward stories to light. The prospect of the gallows, too, makes them hardy and bold. Ah, it’s a fine thing for the trade! Five of them strung up in a row, and none left to play booty or turn white-livered!”—Oliver Twist, Charles Dickens, 1838
Fast-forward to April 2017. The state of Arkansas plans to execute eight men, four white and four black, over the course of ten days next month. Condemned to die by lethal injection are inmates Bruce Ward and Don Davis (April 17), Stacey Johnson and Ledell Lee (April 20), Jack Jones and Marcel Williams (April 24), and Kenneth Williams and Jason McGehee (April 27). All eight were convicted of murders occurring between 1989 and 1999. Their executions would be the first in the state since 2005.
If Arkansas keeps to this timetable, it will be a rate of executions unmatched by any state since the US Supreme Court reinstated the death penalty in 1977. The rush to execution, prompted by the expiration of one of three toxic chemicals to be used in the men’s lethal injections, is indicative of new depths of ruthlessness and barbarism plumbed by the political establishment in 21st century America.
As the Arkansas Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty has rightly noted: “This planned mass execution is grotesque.” If Arkansas authorities are successful in executing this assembly line of death, it will undoubtedly arouse popular revulsion. At present, however, it has received only perfunctory attention in the media and from politicians in the two big business parties. That the state killing of eight inmates in ten days is considered “normal” is indicative of the diseased state of the ruling elite.
The Republican governor of Arkansas, Asa Hutchinson, authorized the executions after the US Supreme Court refused to hear an appeal by nine Arkansas death row inmates challenging a state law forbidding disclosure of the companies supplying drugs used in lethal injections, the state’s method of capital punishment.
Hutchinson said it was necessary to schedule the assembly line executions because the expiration date for the state’s supply of midazolam would pass at the end of April. Midazolam, a sedative, has been used in a number of horrific “botched” executions in other states in recent years, as other drugs have been in short supply. The European Union and a number of US pharmaceutical companies have restricted the use of their drugs for lethal injection, in part due to the controversy provoked by these cases.
In Arkansas, the governor has executive authority to grant clemency to prisoners sentenced to death. For Hutchinson, however—a former federal prosecutor and career government bureaucrat—this is not even a consideration. Among his long line of official posts is first undersecretary for border and transportation security at the newly formed Department of Homeland Security (DHS) under George W. Bush. He also served as an administrator for the Drug Enforcement Agency under Bush.
Under President Obama, Hutchinson served on The Constitution Project’s Guantanamo Task Force, telling the media he believed the prison camp was “something important for our national security and our war on terrorism.” Deeply embedded in the government-military-police apparatus, he will not lose any sleep over his distinction of authorizing a rate of executions unsurpassed in modern US death penalty history.
At a news conference last week announcing the rapid-fire executions, the governor lamented, “I would love to have those extended over a period of multiple months and years, but that’s not the circumstances that I find myself in.” He added, “And, again, the families of the victims that have endured this for so many years deserve a conclusion to it.” Such statements have the ring of a concentration camp guard who is simply “carrying out orders.”
The same US Supreme Court that refused to hear the Arkansas inmates’ appeal issued a ruling in June 2015 upholding the use of midazolam, despite substantial evidence that the drug can cause excruciating and prolonged pain when used as part of a lethal injection cocktail. Experts speaking on behalf of plaintiffs in Glossip v. Gross argued that the sedative could not be relied upon to maintain adequate anesthesia and, as a result, prisoners could end up writhing in pain as subsequent drugs paralyzed them and shut down their life functions.
Most notorious was the case of Clayton Lockett in April 2014 in Oklahoma, who gained consciousness as he was being executed and sought to rise from the execution gurney before eventually dying of a heart attack 43 minutes after initial sedation. His last words were reportedly, “My body is on fire.”
Arkansas has its own gruesome history of executions gone wrong. One of the most notable was that of Ricky Ray Rector in January 1992, who was sentenced to death for the 1981 murder of a police officer. Rector was convicted of shooting the officer in the back and then turning the gun on himself. The attempted suicide effectively resulted in a frontal lobotomy, rendering Rector incapable of comprehending his death sentence.
Bill Clinton, then a candidate for the Democratic Party presidential nomination, flew home mid-campaign to ensure that Rector’s execution went forward as scheduled. The future president stated at the time that the Democrats “should no longer feel guilty about protecting the innocent,” and voiced his strong support for the death penalty.
It took Arkansas prison staff more than 50 minutes to find a suitable vein for Rector’s lethal injection. Witnesses to the execution reported that they could hear Rector moaning behind the curtain blocking the view to the execution chamber. An administrator of the state department of corrections medical program said, “The moans did come as a team of two medical people—that had grown to five—worked on both sides of his body to find a vein. That may have contributed to his occasional outbursts.”
President Clinton would go on to sign into law the Anti-Terrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996 (AEDPA), which severely limited the federal writ of habeas corpus for death row inmates. It is estimated that as a result of AEDPA, and the Supreme Court’s interpretation of it, the reversal rate of state courts in death penalty cases has been reduced by about 40 percent.
The Obama administration continued to uphold the Democrats’ support for the death penalty. Obama commented after Clayton Lockett’s particularly heinous execution that while he found the incident “deeply troubling,” he felt, “There are certain circumstances in which a crime is so terrible that the application of the death penalty may be appropriate.” This came from the president who asserted and exercised the “right” to order the targeted assassination of thousands of people, including US citizens.
Newly installed President Donald Trump has ushered in an even more open escalation of state violence. His administration has vowed to “take the shackles off” of immigration police, essentially targeting every undocumented immigrant living in the US for apprehension and deportation. Longstanding US residents are being snatched from their families and either jailed or deported, fostering an atmosphere of terror and fear in immigrant communities and outrage within the wider US population.
Trump has proposed a $54 billion budget increase for the Pentagon’s war machine, the intelligence agencies and the Department of Homeland Security, to be offset by savage cuts to social programs and services and the gutting of regulations on big business and the banks. Even as police across the country carry out daily shootings of unarmed and often mentally ill individuals, he has touted his support for the police as part of his law-and-order agenda.
In an interview in May 2015 following the shooting deaths of two Mississippi police officers, Trump affirmed his support for the death penalty, commenting on the suspects in the killings: “I don’t know. They say it’s not a deterrent. Well you know what? Maybe it’s not a deterrent, but these two will not do any more killing, that’s for sure.”
Such statements exemplify the ruling elite’s outlook on capital punishment, which is one of retribution and vengeance against society’s most vulnerable. This has nothing to do with “justice,” but rather is aimed at acclimatizing the population to the daily murder and brutality of the capitalist state.
Eight men put to death in the space of ten days in Arkansas? That’s the social reality in America. Get used to it!
The ease with which the ruling class engages in such barbarism as the normal state of affairs in 2017 must stand as a warning to the working class. The band of sociopaths occupying the White House is prepared to utilize the brutality meted out against immigrants and condemned death row inmates against the population at large.