LITTLE ROCK — Gov. Asa Hutchinson on Thursday said he is confident the state Department of Correction can successfully carry out seven executions over an 11-day span starting Monday and defended his decision to set the unprecedented schedule.
In a news conference at the Governor’s Mansion, Hutchinson also expressed confidence in the ability of the sedative midazolam to render the inmates unconscious and said he retains the option to halt any of the executions but does not expect to do so.
The governor told reporters he paid a visit Wednesday to the Department of Correction’s execution chamber in Lincoln County and was satisfied the staff can carry out the plan successfully. Arkansas last executed an inmate in 2005.
“I’m not going to go into which staff is doing what at the Department of Correction, but as I was there yesterday, they are experienced, they work on it, they practice it, they don’t take it lightly,” he said. “They know what they’re doing.”
The plan has drawn international attention and has been criticized by groups and individuals who have called it an “assembly line” and a “train wreck.”
On Thursday, more than a dozen civil rights and criminal justice reform leaders from around the country sent Hutchinson a letter urging him to stop the executions. Former Arkansas death-row inmate Damien Echols, who was freed in 2011 under a plea bargain, has said he will take part in a protest of the executions on the Capitol steps at 1:30 p.m. Friday.
Arkansas is seeking to carry out the record-setting spate of executions before its supply of midazolam expires at the end of this month.
Hutchinson scheduled the executions in February after the U.S. Supreme Court declined to hear a challenge by the inmates to the state’s lethal-injection law, effectively upholding the law.
He originally scheduled two executions each on four nights between next Monday and April 27. A federal judge last week stayed the execution of Jason McGehee, saying 30 days must be allowed for public comments on a recommendation by the state Parole Board that Hutchinson commute his sentence to life without parole.
Hutchinson said Thursday, “If I … chose to spread it out over four months or six months, would that have made any difference to the death-penalty opponents that are coming in here and protesting this? Would it have changed any of those circumstances, or their views on this, or made it more acceptable to them? I don’t think so.”
The governor also said he had the victims and their families in mind when he set the schedule. He began the news conference by summarizing the inmates’ crimes and said not enough attention has been paid to the men’s victims.
“Say I just wanted to set two at first during that time period (before the midazolam expired),” he said. “Then I’m supposed to go to Dick Daniel, the husband of Jane Daniel, who was killed in Rogers, Arkansas, brutally murdered (by Don William Davis), I’m supposed to go to him and say, ‘Well, I was worried about how the state would look, I was worried about whether I would get too many inquiries from the media, and so we’re not going to be setting the date for the perpetrator of the murder of your wife’?”
The inmates have been arguing in federal court that the use of midazolam as part of a three-drug cocktail in their executions will not prevent them from experiencing severe pain and suffering.
Hutchinson told reporters, “From my research, my discussions, midazolam is effective as it has been used in Florida successfully, and so it can be done right, and that’s what we’re endeavoring to do.”
Aside from McGehee’s, the Parole Board has recommended that Hutchinson deny clemency requests from the inmates. Hutchinson said he is not inclined to halt any of the executions but is keeping that option open.
“There is something in my mind that would actually trigger more extensive review and rethinking things, but I don’t expect that to happen,” he said.
Hutchinson acknowledged that some have religious objections to the death penalty but said it is not inconsistent with his beliefs.
“I have a responsibility to the voters, I have a responsibility to my oath of office, but I also have responsibility to a higher power, God and eternity, and I understand that,” he said. “I feel comfortable in my understanding of my responsibilities both in terms of faith and scripture and in terms of as governor.”
Davis and Bruce Earl Ward are scheduled to be executed Monday. Ledell Lee, Stacey Eugene Johnson, Jack Harold Jones, Marcel Williams and Kenneth Williams also are scheduled to be put to death this month.