By Matt Hadro
As judges halted the planned executions of eight inmates in 10 days in Arkansas, Catholics around the country pointed to messages of mercy and life in the Easter Triduum.
“After the darkness of Good Friday has come a great light,” Karen Clifton, executive director of the Catholic Mobilizing Network, which works to end the death penalty, stated.
After the executions were halted, Bishop Anthony Taylor of Little Rock said, “I would like to thank everyone who has prayed and worked so hard to prevent these scheduled executions from taking place. Let us continue to pray and work for the abolition of the death penalty in Arkansas and throughout the country.”
After not executing anyone since 2005, Arkansas had scheduled eight executions in 10 days, starting April 17, Easter Monday. The state’s supply of the drug midazolam, a sedative used in the lethal injection process, will expire at the end of April.
However, on the evening of April 14, a state circuit court judge halted the planned executions with a temporary restraining order. Federal judge Kristine G. Baker followed up on April 15 with a preliminary stay of executions. The state is appealing her ruling.
The state supreme court also halted the execution of one of the inmates, Bruce Ward. His lawyers claim he is mentally disabled and unfit for the death penalty.
Opponents of the death penalty insisted that Arkansas was unjustly rushing its execution process and clamored for a halt to the executions.
“A drug’s expiration date should not be the contingent factor for the expedited execution of these 8 men,” Catholic Mobilizing Network had stated. “There is no way this unprecedented number of executions can be carried out without complications.”
Bishop Taylor and Bishop Frank Dewane of Venice, the chair of the U.S. bishops’ domestic justice and human development committee, have both spoken out against the planned executions.
The Benedictine Sisters of St. Scholastica Monastery in Fort Smith, Ark. planned a novena from April 9 to April 17 for those set to be executed, and for clemency to be granted in their cases.
Before the executions were halted, Bishop Dewane had contrasted the practice with the message of the Easter Triduum, the holiest time of the Church’s liturgical calendar.
“On Good Friday, Christians around the world recall the agony of Our Lord’s Passion, as He became the ‘spotless victim’ for us, taking upon Himself all our sins and bearing their weight on the cross. On Holy Saturday, we remember how Jesus descended into Hell to set prisoners free,” Bishop Dewane stated April 13.
“And, through the liturgy of Easter Sunday, we join the Lord in His triumphant Resurrection by which He conquered sin and death for all peoples and for all time,” he continued.
“So often, the images of Christ’s saving action stand in contrast with the activities of the world. Beginning on Easter Monday, the state of Arkansas is prepared to give us a striking and distressing example.”
“The schedule of executions was not set by the demands of justice, but by the arbitrary politics of punishment,” he said.
Catholic Mobilizing Network said it gathered more than 157,000 signatures calling for the executions to be stopped. Clifton said the network “is grateful for everyone who used their voice to stand for life this Lent.”
A rally, at which Bishop Taylor was present, was held outside the state capitol April 14 calling for the executions to be stopped.
Arkansas’ schedule of executions was unprecedented in recent history, the Death Penalty Information Center noted.
Since states resumed executions in 1976 after the Supreme Court suspended use of the death penalty in 1972 and then reinstated its use four years later, only twice have eight inmates been executed within a single month. Arkansas planned to complete the executions in 10 days.
The state would use a three-drug lethal injection protocol. First, midazolam, a sedative, would be given to render an inmate unconscious. Then vecuronium bromide would be given to paralyze them. Finally, potassium chloride would be administered to stop the inmate’s heart.
Arkansas had run out of its supply of potassium chloride in January, but Governor Asa Hutchinson said they would be able to procure a supply for the executions.
However, Pulaski County circuit Judge Wendell Griffin ruled April 14 that the second drug, vecuronium bromide, could not be used in the process.
The drug supplier, McKesson Corporation, had stated that the drug manufacturer prohibited vecuronium for use in executions, and that Arkansas had purchased it under false pretenses.
McKesson said the Arkansas Department of Corrections “purchased the products on an account that was opened under the valid medical license of an Arkansas physician, implicitly representing that the products would only be used for a legitimate medical purpose.”
According to its complaint filed with the Pulaski County court, McKesson discovered that the drug was to be used for executions and demanded the state return the drug, promising a refund. The supplier said it refunded the state, which never returned the drug.
Mckesson has said it will continue its “efforts to facilitate the return of our product and ensure that it is used in line with our supplier agreement.”
As for the first drug, midazolam, it has been used in botched executions in the past. Some medical experts have claimed it is not proven to be effective as an anesthetic, thus exposing an inmate to the risk of severe pain as the other drugs are administered.
“This Easter season it is clear the Spirit is calling all to respond with mercy and justice to the egregious attacks on life like those in Arkansas and throughout our country,” Clifton stated.
She pointed to the National Catholic Pledge to End the Death Penalty, an initiative of the Catholic Mobilizing Network, as something that “allows all people of good will to better educate, advocate, and pray for an end to the use of the death penalty.”