The last time that a state put more than one inmate to death on the same day — as Arkansas seeks to do — was more than 16 years ago when Texas executed two condemned killers in back-to-back lethal injections — they were declared dead 33 minutes apart.
Other than the moment when one of the men lashed out at family members and police officers who testified against him at trial, the executions went quietly and without any difficulties.
“I don’t remember any problems,” said Jim Willett, the warden in the death chamber the evening of Aug. 9, 2000, when the double execution happened. “I’m not trying to make light of it, but if you can do it right once, why can’t you do it twice the same day?”
Not even Texas, the nation’s most active death penalty state, has scheduled multiple executions in a single day in recent years.
In today’s capital punishment landscape, death penalty opponents are as vocal as ever and some states have struggled with drug shortages, legal challenges and flawed executions.
Amid all this, Arkansas had scheduled a series of executions on Monday that would include the first double executions since the one in Texas in 2000.
The U.S. Supreme Court, however, stepped in late Monday night to block the first of the eight executions.
Arkansas officials have vowed to maintain the execution schedule for later this week.
The state initially planned to execute eight inmates in all, starting Monday, with four nights of double executions through the end of the month, as the state rushes to beat an expiration deadline for one of the three drugs it uses to carry out an execution. But after judges halted two of the executions, Arkansas’ plan was in limbo Friday after a state judge blocked the use of one of its lethal injection drugs — a decision that could effectively halt the executions altogether.
Some attorneys and anti-death penalty groups question whether the quick turnarounds will stress out the prison staff and cause mistakes. Three years ago in Oklahoma, an attempt to execute two inmates on the same April day was thwarted after the first prisoner writhed and moaned on the gurney in a lethal injection the corrections chief tried to halt before the inmate’s death 43 minutes later.
An investigation found intravenous lines had been connected improperly, in part because of the “extra stress” from the scheduling of two executions the same day.
That execution led the Supreme Court to review and ultimately uphold Oklahoma’s use of midazolam, the same sedative that Arkansas plans to use next week as part of a three-drug protocol. Texas uses a single drug, pentobarbital, in its lethal injections.
Executions of multiple inmates are not new to Arkansas. It has twice executed three inmates on the same day — in August 1994 and January 1997. And it put two inmates to death the same day both in May 1994 and September 1999.
Arkansas officials in the past defended the multiple executions as reducing stress and saving overtime costs for corrections personnel.
But more recently, capital punishment has been stalled in Arkansas because of drug shortages and legal challenges. The last execution in the state was in 2005.
Asked about the potential for difficulties if Arkansas were to carry out back-to-back executions, criminal justice professor Robert Lytle said, “If I’m being perfectly honest, I don’t know.”
Lytle, who teaches at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock, said so much attention has been given to the unprecedented timetable.
“I’ve got to think everybody is dotting their i’s and crossing their t’s,” he said. “I can see some logistical issues creating some difficulties but I’m sure if that’s all it is, I can see the Department of Correction will adapt however they need to.”
There was a time when executing more than one prisoner on a single day was common — records show at least seven states carried out multiple single-day executions in 1951.
Virginia electrocuted four inmates Feb. 2, 1951, and three more three days later. The men — all black and known historically as the Martinsville Seven — were all convicted of raping a white woman at a time when rape was a capital offense.
That same year in New York, a couple known as the Lonely Hearts Killers were electrocuted back to back March 7, 1951. Two more prisoners were put to death the next day in the same electric chair.
In Texas, records show multiple executions 28 times starting in 1924 when the state took over execution duties from counties and electrocution became the capital punishment method. For its inauguration on Feb. 8, 1924, the new electric chair was used five times.
But since the 1976 Supreme Court decision allowing the death penalty to resume, multiple executions have been rare.
The pair of lethal injections that Willett, the former Texas warden, presided over in 2000 was the last of 10 such executions over six years involving only four states: Texas, Arkansas, Illinois and South Carolina.
Willett, who oversaw 89 executions before he retired in 2001 after 30 years with the prison system, said his tenure also included a series of seven lethal injections over 15 days in January 2000, a run similar to Arkansas’ planned executions.
“I do remember it seemed to kind of drain me near the end of that January bunch,” he said. “I just seemed to be emotionally drained.”