The State of Arkansas’ plan to execute eight death row inmates in 11 days this month – before its supply of one of the drugs it uses in executions runs out – has devolved into chaos brought on by a bevy of court rulings.
The chaos only serves to highlight the mounting questions about whether the death penalty can be carried out fairly or justly. The questions will only continue to mount until we as a society come to grips with how to administer justice in a way that both holds people accountable for their crimes and recognizes their dignity as human beings, even if they have committed heinous acts. As biases in the administration of justice, mistakes at trials, and problems with the methods of execution all become more apparent, it is becoming harder to justify the use of the death penalty.
Months ago, Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson announced that eight inmates would be executed between April 17 and 27. Officials said the executions had to be done in quick succession to use the state’s final batch of midazolam before it expired at the end of April. Midazolam is supposed to induce unconsciousness before two other lethal drugs are injected.
The first legal roadblock to the Arkansas’ executions came from a temporary restraining order issued after two pharmaceutical companies sued the state, claiming the state may not have obtained midazolam properly. The next day, a federal judge issued a preliminary injunction stopping the state from executing six of the inmates in part because of the ineffectiveness of midazolam. The inmates claimed the drug doesn’t always work, causing unconstitutional pain and suffering from the use of the other lethal injection drugs.
Then in another wild swing, the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals overturned those rulings to allow the executions of six of the eight inmates to continue.
There have also been questions raised because five of the eight inmates scheduled to be executed appear to suffer from a serious mental illness or intellectual impairment. The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that executing people with intellectual disabilities is unconstitutional.
If all the court proceedings can’t be concluded by the end of the month, the executions could be put on hold indefinitely because the state’s supply of midazolam will run out and state officials have said they have no other source to acquire more.
None of these problems are new or unique to Arkansas. Tennessee made plans to go forward with 10 executions between 2014 and 2016, but none have yet been carried out, in part because of legal challenges. The last person executed in Tennessee was Cecil Johnson in 2009. Since then, two death row inmates have died of natural causes.
The Catholic Church has long advocated for an end to the death penalty, arguing it is unnecessary to protect society and that the many problems surrounding its use, including the high number of people wrongly convicted and its denial of the dignity due every person, even those who commit the most evil of crimes, make it an immoral choice. There are alternatives, such as the sentence of life without parole, that hold people accountable while avoiding the many problems associated with the death penalty.
Bishop Frank J. Dewane of Venice, Florida, chairman of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Committee on Domestic Justice and Human Development, urged Gov. Hutchinson to reconsider the scheduled executions in Arkansas and reduce the sentences to life imprisonment.
“May those in Arkansas who hold the lives of these individuals on death row in their hands be moved by God’s love, which is stronger than death, and abandon the current plans for execution,” he wrote.
In his statement, Bishop Dewane quoted from Pope Francis’ 2015 address to the U.S. Congress, in which he called for the end to the death penalty around the world. “I am convinced that this way is the best, since every life is sacred, every human person is endowed with an inalienable dignity, and society can only benefit from the rehabilitation of those convicted of crimes,” the pope said. “A just and necessary punishment must never exclude the dimension of hope and the goal of rehabilitation.”
“It can be very difficult to think of mercy at a time when justice for unthinkable crimes seems to cry out for vengeance,” Bishop Dewane said. “The harm and pain caused by terrible sin is real.”
But the answer comes in another quote from the pope, the bishop said: “Jesus on the cross prayed for those who had crucified him: ‘Father, forgive them, they know not what they do.’ Mercy is the only way to overcome evil. Justice is necessary, very much so, but by itself it is not enough. Justice and mercy must go together.”
Let us pray that justice and mercy can join hands in Arkansas, in Tennessee, and across the land.