Arkansas Death Row Inmates’ Lethal Injection Procedures to Change

By Guest Contributor

First posted on 06-26-2008

LITTLE ROCK – To ensure compliance with federal court orders, Arkansas officials are changing lethal injection procedures for executing inmates.

In Arkansas, as in many other states that rely on lethal injection, executioners use three drugs. One is an anesthetic, a second paralyzes the inmate’s muscles and the third drug stops his heart.

Under the new protocol, a prison official will make sure the anesthetic has made the inmate unconscious before the second two drugs are administered. The official will check for movements of the eyelids and for any response to verbal commands. Also, the official will nudge or shake the inmate’s shoulder.

If the inmate does not respond after being injected with the anesthetic, three minutes will be allowed to pass, then the next two drugs will be injected.

The state attorney general said he would study the new procedure to ensure that it is constitutional. The new protocol is similar to previous procedures and also is similar to methods approved by the U.S. Supreme Court in a Kentucky case, in which the court ruled that executions in Kentucky were not cruel and unusual punishment.

Arkansas inmates on death row have filed legal challenges to the lethal injection procedures administered by the state Correction Department.

In 1970, Governor Winthrop Rockefeller commuted the sentences of 15 Arkansas death row inmates. At the time it was “the most sweeping use within memory of a state chief executive’s power to revoke capital punishment,” according to contemporary news accounts in Time magazine.

In a 1972 case out of Georgia, the Supreme Court voided 40 states’ death penalty statutes and thus commuted the sentences of 629 death row inmates nationwide. But then in cases out of Georgia, Florida and Texas the court reinstated the death penalty in 1976.

In 1990, two Arkansas inmates were executed. They were the first persons to be executed in Arkansas since 1964. John Edward Swindler was killed by electrocution, and he was the last person in Arkansas to be executed by that method. The other man, Ronald Gene Simmons, was the first to be executed by lethal injection.

The most recent execution in Arkansas took place in 2005. Since the U.S. Supreme Court’s 1976 ruling that allowed death penalties to resume, Arkansas has executed 27 people.

Under Governor Bill Clinton four men were executed. Under Governor Jim Guy Tucker seven people were executed. Under Governor Mike Huckabee 16 people were executed. Arkansas has not executed an inmate under Governor Mike Beebe, but he has set dates for the executions of three men.

Arkansas executed inmates by hanging them from a gallows until 1913, when electrocution became the method.

There are now 40 men on Death Row in the Varner Unit of the state Correction Department. Two of them were sentenced in April of this year. The longest serving inmate on Death Row was sentenced in 1989.

Death Row is in Varner’s SuperMax Unit, the most secure prison facility in the state. Executions are carried out in the Cummins Unit, which is adjacent to Varner. Cummins and Varner are in Lincoln County, about 30 miles south of Pine Bluff, and are visible to the east as you drive along Highway 65.