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New Developments Further Challenge the Application of the Death Penalty

New Developments Further Challenge the Application of the Death Penalty

Jail Cells

How does a state that has not executed a single prisoner since 2005 end up scheduling eight executions and carrying out four of them in ten days? What can these developments tell us about the application of the death penalty in the United States? The answers to these questions lie in a complex story involving the Arkansas government, the Supreme Court, advocates for and against the death penalty and drug expiration dates.

The state of Arkansas had scheduled executions for eight of their death row inmates between April 17 and 27, citing the need to complete the executions before their supply of one of the lethal injection drugs used by the state, midazolam, expired at the end of the month. Many raised concerns about the rapid pace of the executions, particularly because Arkansas had never used midazolam in an execution before and the drug has been linked to botched executions in other states.

The U.S. Supreme Court ruled on last minute appeals regarding some of the eight executions. On April 17, the Court denied a request to overturn a stay for the first inmate scheduled to be executed, which stopped Don Davis from being executed before the end of April. Three days later, though, the Court allowed the state to execute another inmate, Ledell Lee. This 5-4 decision was the first major ruling since Justice Neil Gorsuch, who voted to allow the executions, joined the Court. Three other sentences proceeded before the end of the month. Now that the state’s supply of midazolam is expired, the future of the four inmates whose executions were delayed by state or federal court rulings is uncertain.

Arkansas is not the only state that has a difficult time obtaining lethal injection drugs. Texas is suing the Food and Drug Administration for blocking a shipment of a different drug used in executions, which the FDA says is illegal to import. Further complicating matters is the reputation of Texas’ supplier, which is questionable at best.

The Reform Movement has consistently opposed the death penalty in all circumstances because our Jewish values instruct us to seek accountability for wrongdoing in ways that safeguard the sanctity of human life. Both the pace of executions in Arkansas and the broader challenges states face in obtaining execution drugs highlight how it is becoming increasingly untenable for governments to find a humane way of administering a punishment that is fundamentally inhumane. We must continue to work for criminal justice policies that honor human dignity, rather than taking it away. Learn more about the RAC’s work to reform the criminal justice system here.

Jacob Kraus is the campaign organizer at the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, leading the Reform Movement’s Urgency of Now campaigns for criminal justice reform and immigrant justice. Based at the Union for Reform Judaism offices in New York City, Jacob grew up in Cincinnati, OH, where his family is affiliated with Rockdale Temple. He is a 2015 graduate of Macalester College.

Jacob Kraus

Published: 5/16/2017