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Arkansas Faces Another Hurdle in Upcoming 8 Executions — Finding Witnesses

Arkansas state code says at least six 'respectable citizens' must view the executions to confirm it was 'conducted in the manner required by law.'
Image: The gurney sits in the the execution chamber at the Oklahoma State Penitentiary
The gurney sits in the the execution chamber at the Oklahoma State Penitentiary in McAlester in 2014.Sue Ogrocki / AP file

The state of Arkansas faces a new hurdle that could foil its plans to execute eight inmates over 10 days next month: a lack of volunteers from the public to watch.

Arkansas state code says that at least six "respectable citizens" must view the executions to confirm it was "conducted in the manner required by law." But the state’s Department of Correction is struggling to come up with enough people, according to local reports.

Indicating the state’s desperation, Wendy Kelly, the director of the Department of Correction, held a presentation this week to the Little Rock Rotary Club to solicit volunteers, NBC affiliate KARK reported.

"Temporarily, there was a little laugh from the audience because they thought she might be kidding," interim Rotary Club President Bill Booker told the station. "It quickly became obvious that she was not kidding."

Image: Arkansas executions
Top row, from left, Bruce Ward, Marcel Williams, Jason McGehee and Kenneth Williams. Bottom row, Stacey Johnson, Ledell Lee, Don Davis and Jack Jones.Arkansas Corrections

The Department of Correction says it is confident that it will find the necessary witnesses, but any delay could force the state to cancel its plans for executions for the foreseeable future. And Arkansas Attorney General Leslie Rutledge said she will follow the letter of the law, her office said.

The state said volunteers must be 21-year-old Arkansas residents and cannot be related to the family of the victim or inmate, or have any felony convictions.

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The rush to execute comes as the state’s supply of midazolam, the first drug in a three-drug lethal injection protocol, is set to expire April 31, giving Arkansas a very small window to fulfill the eight procedures it has set between April 17 and 27.

They will execute two men per day on four separate days. But the self-imposed time crunch is causing the state to struggle to reach its goal.

“Finding witnesses for executions has never been this kind of problem because no state has attempted to carry out so many executions in such a short period of time,” Death Penalty Information Center Executive Director Robert Dunham told NBC News.

But the state does not plan to give up. The Department of Correction even sent out a reminder that witnesses can volunteer to be present at more than one execution.

Arkansas state officials have said more than once they are prepared to carry out the death penalty, but foibles such as this seem to indicate a strain on a state that hasn’t executed anyone since 2005.

The death penalty was held up because of legal challenges and the state's struggle to obtain the drugs it requires.

Lawyers for the defense declined to comment, although they noted that they were working under the assumption that the state would be able to obtain the necessary witnesses.

Dunham also worries about the psyche of those volunteers who might be encouraged to go without fully understanding what they might see, noting the problematic history of midazolam — the drug set to expire — which has never been successfully used twice in one day for a lethal injection procedure.

Midazolam is not an anesthetic and has a history of not rendering the patient comatose, as is necessary for a person not to feel pain. Death penalty experts say its failure can turn the entire procedure “cruel and unusual.”

"Due to manpower and facility concerns, executions should not be scheduled within seven calendar days of each other," an Oklahoma report of the execution of inmate Clayton Lockett in 2014 concluded after he woke up in the middle of the procedure.

“If you are attempting to double up on the witnesses, you don’t know how traumatized they may be from the first execution,” Dunham said. “Lay witnesses who don’t have explained to them all the issues with midazolam may not be prepared for what they see.”

The Department of Correction will provide its staff counseling if they request it after the executions. It is unclear whether they will offer the same to volunteer witnesses.