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No mercy, just calculation

So many flawlessly done executions doubtful by Doug Thompson | April 15, 2017 at 1:00 a.m.

Ido not oppose the death penalty. Two of my reasons were named Richard Wayne Snell and Jonas Hoten Whitmore.

I covered their trials, among other capital murder cases. I listened to those two confess the killings they committed. I left with no doubt, reasonable or otherwise, that each one did his horrific crime. I do not doubt either of them would have killed again under the right circumstances and each man’s threshold on that was low.

So there are no heartstrings within me to pluck on the subject of scheduling executions. Eight were scheduled in Arkansas to begin Monday and be done within 11 calendar days. I can consider that remarkable pace with no principle-based objection to the death penalty itself. As of Friday night, two executions had been stayed and the legal battle over the all of them raged.

Trying to execute that many people within such a short period courts disaster.

Running executions in a batch eliminates, or at least sharply curtails, one of the most effective practices known to the medical arts — or engineering, gardening, journalism or anything else. You do something. You let some time pass and decompress. You evaluate your results. You make corrections and changes. You do better the next time. You do that even if everything went well.

The argument for this clump of executions is an expiration date. The state has a limited supply of the sedative used to render the condemned unconscious before the lethal drugs, which cause great pain, are administered. Obtaining more sedatives would be difficult — not impossible, but difficult.

Much of the debate on these executions centers around that drug. Forget that. Assume the drug works at least as well as other drugs work for their purposes. No drug is perfect, and no administration of it is perfectly applied every time.

The most common pain management technique used in the United States during childbirth is the epidural block. I saw my wife get one once that completely missed. The same procedure had worked on her before. That time, it did not. It had to be administered again. Neither I nor my wife threw a fit. These things happen.

Now suppose something similar happened in an execution, only the condemned is knocked down but not out. No one would know something had gone wrong until the lethal drugs had the sedated-but-not-out man writhing in pain.

Of course the state takes precautions against such an event. So did Oklahoma in the 2014 execution of Clayton Lockett.

Lockett died in an ordeal I will not describe here, other than to say the injection needle for the sedative apparently hit the intended vein but then shifted into surrounding tissue. An autopsy found enough midazolam in Lockett’s system to have rendered him unconscious anyway — but it did not, at least not soon enough.

Let those who are passionate about this issue debate the efficacy of midazolam, or the straightforwardness with which our state’s batch was acquired. The prospect of a shifting needle is enough to make me doubt the state can perform seven flawless executions in a row, the first in Arkansas since 2005.

I have met and talked to men who deserved execution. No one deserves torture first, however unintentional. No matter how much agony the condemned inflicted on his victim and and no matter how long the victim’s family has waited for justice, the people carrying out the grim task of execution should not be told to hurry up and run the risks of haste to beat an expiration date.

The supply of midazolam is limited, by the way, because the companies that make truly effective, almost coma-inducing anesthesia do not want their wares used in executions. Public pressure works. The state bought its sedative supply before that same pressure fully got to whoever supplied this batch of midazolam.

“Holding that the Eighth Amendment demands the elimination of essentially all risk of pain would effectively outlaw the death penalty altogether,” as the U.S. Supreme Court’s majority opinion in 2015’s Glossip vs. Goss. I agree with that — but that does not give license to apply the death sentence recklessly.

As a number of prison officials from around the country told the governor in a letter: “A state’s interest in justice and finality are not served by a botched execution.”

The state’s critics call these planned executions an “assembly line of death.” That grisly description will only apply if all goes smoothly. The other prospect is a train wreck.

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Doug Thompson is a political reporter and columnist for the Northwest Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. He can be reached by email at [email protected] . Follow him on Twitter @NWADoug .

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