Arkansas’ Capital Punishment Spree: ‘It Ain’t Gonna Work on Some of Them’

the table in the lethal injection room at san quentin prison in california
A lethal injection room. Photo from the California Department of Corrections, image in the public domain.

Arkansas is running out of time to execute seven death row inmates. The supply of one of the drugs the state plans to use in the lethal injections—drugs which will be used for the first time—expires at the end of April, and finding a new supply won’t be easy. “It ain’t gonna work on some of them,” says Jeff Rosenzweig, a veteran Arkansas defense attorney who’s working on clemency petitions for several of the condemned. Botched executions using questionable new methods are not new for the state of Arkansas, reports Liliana Segura at The Intercept.

It did not take long for this lie to be dramatically exposed. Nine years after killing Simms, Arkansas carried out one of the most grotesque executions the country had ever seen. Following the departure of the longtime warden at the state penitentiary, prison officials selected an unidentified “volunteer” executioner—an English car salesman who had taken a correspondence course in electricity, according to a 1922 article in the Arkansas Democrat—who flipped the switch to kill an 18-year-old black man named James Wells. To the horror of witnesses, most of whom fled minutes into the execution, Wells stayed alive over repeated attempts to send lethal currents through his body. On the twelfth try, the young man finally died.

Newspapers decried the spectacle. The Democrat’s editorial page called it a “horrible and revolting disgrace on the state of Arkansas,” calling for experts to carry out executions, and exhorting the governor to ensure that “there are no repetitions of this horrible human butchery.” Yet less than a year later, Arkansas carried out a quadruple execution, only to realize as officials prepared to bury the four men, that one of them was still alive. This time, the press was a bit more matter-of-fact. “He was taken from the coffin and again placed in the electric chair,” according to one report.

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