President Donald Trump’s nominee to the Supreme Court, Justice Neil Gorsuch, cast his first major decision on Thursday — to allow a series of executions to move forward.
Gorsuch joined Chief Justice John Roberts and Justices Anthony Kennedy, Clarence Thomas, and Samuel Alito to clear the way for Arkansas to execute Ledell Lee. They didn’t explain their decision.
Lee is one of eight convicted murderers in Arkansas that the state has rushed to kill this month. Although the executions were supposed to begin on Monday, federal and state courts have so far halted the executions up until now.
Shortly after Gorsuch’s vote, Arkansas swiftly carried out the execution — the first it’s held since 2005. Lee took 12 minutes to die after drugs were administered, prison officials told reporters.
It’s unclear, at this point, how many or if any of the other executions Arkansas has planned for the month. Two more executions — of Jack Jones and Marcel Williams — are set for next Monday.
A death penalty expert called Arkansas’s original execution schedule “unprecedented.” “No state has ever attempted to execute this many people in such a short period of time,” Robert Dunham, executive director at the policy and research group the Death Penalty Information Center told Vox.
What’s more disturbing is why Arkansas is in such a rush. It’s not based on a substantive, urgent demand for the executions to take place. Instead, the state is worried that one of the execution drugs it will use in its drug cocktail, midazolam, will expire at the end of the month.
“The state has adopted a reckless execution schedule solely to permit it to carry out these executions by an artificial ‘kill by’ date on which its drugs expire,” Dunham said. “There is no legitimate penological reason, there is no legitimate criminal justice administration reason, to carry out that many executions in this short a time frame.”
Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson told NPR: “In order to fulfill my duty as governor, it is necessary to schedule the executions prior to the expiration of that drug.”
The rush to push out Arkansas’s executions shows the dwindling status of the death penalty in America. But as states become more desperate to carry out executions in this environment, it’s possible we’ll see more gruesome plans like those in Arkansas.
Incredibly, some states are growing more desperate to avert the decline of capital punishment. Tennessee, for example, reinstated the possibility of the electric chair, Utah allowed the firing squad again, and Oklahoma permitted nitrogen gas. And in Arkansas, the governor set up an unprecedented execution schedule — just to avoid a product’s expiration date.
The fact that the United States carries out death penalties at all makes the nation stand out among most countries of the world.
As Amnesty International notes in its 2014 report, only nine nations across the globe still execute citizens. As one of those nine nations, the United States finds itself in the company of states like Iran, China, Somalia, Sudan and North Korea.
America’s status is remarkable not only because of its position as an active and often vocal supporter of human rights, but also due to its location. The U.S. is one of two western nations that still has a death penalty, and was the only country in the Americas to have executed a convict in 2013. Indeed, out of all of North America and Europe, only Kazakhstan still have laws allowing executions.
U.S. neighbors Canada and Mexico both abolished the practice, in 1976 and 2005 respectively. The European Union holds the official position that “the death penalty is cruel and inhuman, and has not been shown in any way to act as a deterrent to crime.” Europe goes as far as to make abolition a pre-requisite for membership, as well as banning the export of drugs that could be used in executions.
Out of the list of countries that do actively enforce the death penalty, most are authoritarian governments with a terrible track record of human rights. Seeing the United States listed among them is a strange sight, and one that should make death penalty advocates take notice of the company they keep.