Academic Circles Unsurprised by Arkansas Stays

Apr 17, 2017

Austin Sarat is a professor at Amherst College in Massachusetts and author of "Gruesome Spectacles" on the history of botched executions in the U.S.
Credit Amhest College

There were a number of signs that the Arkansas executions were headed for a last-minute stay, according to an Amherst College professor who has studied and written extensively on the history of capital punishment in the United States.

“I don’t think it’s a surprising development,” said Sarat, who first spoke with Arkansas Public Media several weeks ago and then agreed to a follow-up interview following news of the stays.

Sarat said the decision may have hinged on the fast pace of the executions, which would have seen seven men put to death via lethal injection over a ten day period. An eighth inmate was granted a reprieve previously.

“There was evidence brought before a federal judge which I think was quite compelling that the pressures on the execution team would be quite unusual in this case,” he said.  Sarat, who published “Gruesome Spectacles” on the history of botched executions, said the consolidated schedule combined with concerns about the drug midazolam may have convinced the judges that the risk of a botched execution was too high.

“We’ve seen several executions using midazolam that have been botched, including Oklahoma, Ohio, Arizona and Alabama,” said Sarat, who wrote in “Gruesome Spectacles” that lethal injections have the highest rate of accidents of all execution methods at a little over seven percent.  Opponents of lethal injection have argued that midazolam, which was the first drug in a three-drug cocktail, does not put the inmate into a deep enough sleep to ensure that he is out of pain and unaware of the next two injections, which aim to stop his breathing and then his heart in rapid succession.

Even with the executions on hold, Sarat said the Arkansas case will be remembered in capital punishment history studies.

“It’s an unusual moment when a state decides to move into what I call assembly line mode, because one of the drugs it’s going to use is running up its expiration date,” he said, referring to the reason given by the state as to why all the executions needed to be carried out before the end of April.  He was quick to add that the condemned men, all convicted of murder, do not need to be seen as sympathetic figures.

Sarat was reached at his office in Massachusetts on the same day that the running of the Boston Marathon was taking place.  He said he also expects there to be a long legal battle surrounding the federal death sentence given to Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, convicted of killing four people in a terrorist bombing at the marathon in 2013.

“There is substantial doubt that Tsarneav will ever be executed,” he said.

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