The state of Arkansas, which plans to execute eight inmates over 10 days next month, is struggling to overcome a logistical problem to carry that out: There are not enough people who want to watch them die.
A state law requires that at least six people witness an execution to ensure that the state’s death penalty laws are properly followed. But so far, finding that many volunteer witnesses to cover all of the scheduled executions has proved difficult, prompting the director at the Department of Correction to take the extraordinary step of personally seeking volunteers.
A department spokesman declined to say whom the director, Wendy Kelley, has approached for help, but she has extended invitations to members of the Little Rock Rotary Club, according to news reports. Kelley made the request, which the members initially thought was a joke, after delivering a keynote address on Tuesday.
“You seem to be a group that does not have felony backgrounds and are over 21,” Kelley told the Rotarians, according to The Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. “So if you’re interested in serving in that area, in this serious role, just call my office.”
Bill Booker, a Rotary Club member, said some people in the audience initially laughed at Kelley’s remarks. “It quickly became obvious that she was not kidding,” he told KARK-TV, an NBC affiliate in Little Rock.
The spokesman for the Department of Correction, Solomon Graves, declined to describe the response Kelley had received to her requests. “We continue to be confident in our ability to carry out these sentences on the dates set by the governor,” Graves wrote in a text message Friday.
Under Arkansas state law, execution witnesses must be at least 21 years old and a resident of the state, cannot have a felony conviction, and cannot be related to the death row inmate or a victim in the case.
Governor Asa Hutchinson last month scheduled the executions of eight men, all convicted of murder — from April 17 through April 26. Two men will be executed on each of four execution dates.
The Death Penalty Information Center, a Washington-based group that provides analysis and information on issues concerning capital punishment, says on its website that no other state has conducted as many as eight executions in a month since capital punishment resumed in the United States in 1977.
The dates were placed so closely together because of another logistical issue: Arkansas’ supply of midazolam, a sedative used in a three-drug injection method, has an expiration date at the end of April.
Capital punishment has been suspended in Arkansas since 2005 because of legal challenges and the difficulty in acquiring lethal-injection drugs.
The state tried to restart its capital punishment system in 2015 and set dates for that year, but appeals forced the postponement of the executions.
The state law requires six to 12 “respectable citizens” to be present, and Kelley told the Rotary Club that the state had also struggled in 2015 to find enough witnesses for the executions before they were suspended.