Arkansas is turning to rotary clubs to recruit witnesses for executions

March 24, 2017, 11:23am

Arkansas is having trouble recruiting witnesses for the death row executions the state has slated for a 10-day period next month, so it’s looking to rotary clubs for potential enlistees.

Under state law, six to 12 citizen witnesses are required to ensure that executions are carried out lawfully. The criteria is quite general: A volunteer should be at least 21, a resident of Arkansas, have no relationship to the inmate or victim and no previous felonies.

The difficulty recruiting witnesses came to light earlier this week when Wendy Kelley, director of Arkansas’ Department of Correction, was giving a presentation to the Little Rock Rotary Club and “casually” asked the audience to volunteer as witnesses to upcoming executions, Arkansas Matters reported.

Solomon Graves, a spokesperson for the Arkansas Department of Corrections, told Arkansas Matters that they are taking an “informal approach” to find enough witnesses for the eight scheduled executions but were confident they’d find them by the execution dates. Previous efforts have included spreading word of a witness shortage to members of the law enforcement and the media.

More than a dozen of the 38 death penalty states require civilian witnesses at executions, and many face struggles to enlist volunteers. Departments of Corrections in several states were having this problem even as early as 2000, when the numbers of annual executions were on the rise, according to the Wall Street Journal.

Public support for the death penalty hit a 20-year low last year. Judging by interviews with Little Rock Rotarians, ambivalence around capital punishment might have something to do with Arkansas’ difficulty finding volunteer witnesses. Charlotte Gadberry told Arkansas Online that she didn’t think she “could handle it,” and she wasn’t “real sure about how I feel about the death penalty.” Another Rotarian, Charles Moore, also a Vietnam war veteran, said bluntly that he “didn’t believe in an eye for an eye.”

But other Rotarians said that although they supported the death penalty, they just weren’t sure they would be able to stomach the experience of watching an execution, and were concerned about trauma in the aftermath.

Arkansas’ eight upcoming executions have drawn attention partly because the state hasn’t put anyone to death since 2005. Executing eight inmates in a 10-day period is unprecedented for the state, which has executed just 27 inmates since 1976. Attorneys representing nine Arkansas death row inmates — including the eight men scheduled for execution in April — have petitioned the U.S. Supreme Court for a new hearing, arguing that the planned execution rate is “truly extraordinary” and “far outside the bounds of what contemporary society finds acceptable.”

Arkansas has not executed anyone for 12 years due to legal challenges and also difficulty obtaining the necessary lethal injection drugs. The state relies on a three-drug lethal injection protocol, and earlier this month announced its Department of Corrections had obtained 100 vials of potassium chloride, which is administered to stop a person’s heart.

The scramble to execute inmates within such a short time frame is attributed to the state’s supply of midazolam — the controversial drug at the center of high-profile botched executions. It’s set to expire at the end of April.

There are currently 34 inmates on Arkansas’ death row.