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One Arkansas Execution Takes Place As Other Inmates Head To Death Chamber


Last weekend, we reported on efforts by the state of Arkansas to carry out a flurry of executions in a very short time. We check back now on that story. Tomorrow, Arkansas is set to execute two prisoners back to back. The state originally had plans to execute eight men in the last 11 days of April. The deaths were scheduled to happen so quickly because the drug used for lethal injections was set to expire at the end of the month.

Last week, a judge ordered a stay for those executions. But last Thursday, the Supreme Court of the United States voted 5-4 to allow the execution of one of the eight men. Ledell Lee died by lethal injection Thursday night. It was the first execution in Arkansas in over a decade. Two men are set to head to the death chamber tomorrow. Reporter Jacob Rosenberg joins us now. He's been covering the story for the Arkansas Times. Welcome to the program.

JACOB ROSENBERG, BYLINE: Thanks so much for having me.

SUAREZ: You were there at Cummins prison when Ledell Lee was executed on Thursday. Walk us through that day.

ROSENBERG: Yeah, I mean, it was a very hectic day. Something that might not be obvious from the outside is that as you come up to these executions, there's a flurry of legal stays that are trying to be placed by the prisoner's lawyer. So the death warrant runs out at midnight, so the process must begin by midnight. And so we had stays up until the last minute until around 11:30. And at 11:30, we heard that the execution would go through for Ledell Lee.

SUAREZ: The fact that this went ahead without incident, does that weaken the case that there's a problem with the three-drug cocktail?

ROSENBERG: Yeah, so that's a complicated question. So the three-drug cocktail involves a first drug, midazolam, which is supposed to sedate. But the second drug is a paralytic. And then the third drug is potassium chloride, which people have described as fire running through the veins. So the controversial part of this is that midazolam isn't really an anesthetic. It's in the same category as valium. It potentially could not work to actually sedate the prisoner, and they would feel the painful effects of the second and the third drug.

But that second drug is a paralytic. So even though the sedation could not occur for the midazolam, potentially the paralytic would mask all of that pain. So while we didn't see an out and out botch on this, it's still very controversial whether or not midazolam actually works to sedate. With that paralytic, so much of the pain can be masked for the viewer, while the prisoner still could be experiencing what Sotomayor in a dissent described as the chemical equivalent of being burned at the stake.

SUAREZ: Now there are two more men, Jack Jones and Marcel Williams, scheduled to be executed tomorrow. If Arkansas moves ahead, does that change the landscape facing the remaining condemned men? Is it more likely that they're going to die in the coming week?

ROSENBERG: So with the execution of Ledell Lee, certainly it's more likely that others will occur. The overall stays that were trying to be placed on the use of midazolam, on the speed of the schedule, on all these overarching specific ideas, you know, one has gone through already. So now it'll be about individual stays. Can you find a reason individually that Jack Jones and Marcel Williams shouldn't be killed? And there are claims out there. You know, these men have claims of intellectual disability.

Marcel Williams has a very compelling case that's been discussed where he had a pretty horrific childhood growing up of sexual abuse. And that wasn't brought up at trial. And the reason that matters is because with the imposition of the death penalty, there's something called mitigating circumstances. And so those need to be brought up at trial because those mitigating circumstances, like mental health, could stop the death penalty's imposition.

SUAREZ: That's Reporter Jacob Rosenberg. He's been following the story of executions in Arkansas for the Arkansas Times. Jacob, thanks so much for joining us.

ROSENBERG: Yeah, thanks for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.