Eight executions in 11 days: Arkansas order may endanger staff’s mental health

The psychological impact on execution teams is one of the least discussed aspects of capital punishment in the US, yet arguably one of the most disturbing

The lethal injection chamber at San Quentin state prison, California.


The lethal injection chamber at San Quentin state prison, California. Those who watch or participate in executions can suffer long-lasting ill effects.
Photograph: Wally Skalij/LA Times via Getty Images

Eight executions in 11 days: Arkansas order may endanger staff’s mental health

The psychological impact on execution teams is one of the least discussed aspects of capital punishment in the US, yet arguably one of the most disturbing

It’s been more than 20 years since Dr Allen Ault stood in a death chamber and gave the order for the execution to go ahead.

“I said, ‘It’s time,’ and the electrician threw the switch.”

Despite the passage of so many years, he feels troubled to this day by what he did. “I had a lot of guilt, my conscience totally bothered me,” he said. “When the switch was thrown that first time, and I realized I had just killed a man, that was pretty traumatic. Then to have to do it again and again and again, it got so that I absolutely could not go through with it.”

As commissioner of the department of corrections in Georgia, Ault gave the order for five executions by electric chair in 1994 and 1995. After the fifth life was taken, the cumulative distress reached breaking point and he resigned from the post and moved to a job in the US justice department that had nothing to do with the death penalty.

Since then, he has found himself haunted by the memory of the five men whose lives he ended. “I don’t remember their names, but I still see them in my nightmares,” he said.

Governor Asa Hutchinson, left, has ordered eight executions in 11 days.


Governor Asa Hutchinson, left, has ordered eight executions in 11 days. Photograph: Kelly Kissel/AP

Now those nightmares are back in force, triggered by the knowledge that what Ault considers to be a disaster-in-the-making is about to unfold in Arkansas. Next month, the state’s Republican governor, Asa Hutchinson, has scheduled no fewer than eight executions over 11 days – a conveyor belt of killing dispensed at a clip not seen in the US for at least half a century.

The executions are set to take place by lethal injection at a rate of two a day over four separate days. On 17 April, it will be the turn of the inmates Don Davis and Bruce Ward; on 20 April, Stacey Johnson and Ledell Lee; 24 April, Marcel Williams and Jack Jones; 27 April, Jason McGehee and Kenneth Williams.

On Wednesday, 23 former corrections officials from 16 different states sent a joint letter to Hutchinson urging him to reconsider. They warned, several on the basis of personal experience, that participating in executions can exact a “severe toll on corrections officers’ wellbeing” and that by doing so many so quickly Arkansas was “needlessly exacerbating the strain and stress placed on these officers”.

One of Ault’s prime concerns relates not to the eight convicted capital murderers who are set to die, but to the men and women of the execution team who are being asked, just as he was two decades ago, to kill in the name of justice. “To ask corrections officials in Arkansas to kill eight people, two a day – as someone who went through this, I can’t tell you how deeply concerned I am for their mental health,” he said.

“As the old saying goes,” he went on, “you dig two graves: one for the condemned, one for the avenger. That’s what will happen to this execution team – many of them will figuratively have to dig their own grave too.”

Ault said his role at the head of the team that had killed five men left him feeling “lower than the most despicable person”. He felt degraded to a level below that of the heinous murderers he was confronting, a sense that was amplified by how much planning went into the protocols. “I had a manual about an inch thick that I had to follow. What I did was much more premeditated than any of the murders committed by those I executed.”

Then there was the defenselessness of the man on the gurney: “You are taking a totally defenseless person, planning, premeditating, even rehearsing, then killing him – any sane person other than a psychopath would be dramatically affected by that.”

The Arkansas governor has so far given scant details about how he intends to deal with the intense psychological burden he is placing on the shoulders of the state’s execution team, beyond indicating that counseling will be available. When the Guardian put a series of questions to Hutchinson, including what was being done to protect the execution team from potential mental or emotional harm, a spokesman declined to answer.

All the spokesman would say was that the governor had no intention of talking to the national or international media before next month’s executions, on the grounds that there was nothing to discuss. “There’s no debate here – this is not like the future of healthcare in America. The governor has the duty to carry out these executions that were decided by a jury. This is the law of Arkansas and of the federal government of the United States.”

In previous statements, the governor’s office has argued that it will be “more efficient and less stressful” for those involved in carrying out the killing to see them through in quick succession. Given his rich personal experience, that sounds like arrogant negligence to Allen Ault.

“If the governor is so hot on this, he ought to go down to the death chamber and do it himself. But he won’t, they don’t, they never do. Politicians are never in the room when it happens, they never have to suffer anything.”

Ault found that several members of his team were so troubled by the part they played in snuffing out life that they required therapeutic help, and one senior member of the corrections department had to be relieved of his job. He has seen the same pattern of damaged psyches repeated in death penalty states across the country. He personally knew, he said, three former corrections officials who participated, to their distress, in executions and went on to take their own lives.

The condemned men (left to right, from top): Don Davis, Stacey Johnson, Jack Jones and Ledell Lee; Jason McGehee, Bruce Ward, Kenneth Williams and Marcel Williams.


The condemned men (left to right, from top): Don Davis, Stacey Johnson, Jack Jones and Ledell Lee; Jason McGehee, Bruce Ward, Kenneth Williams and Marcel Williams. Photograph: HO/AFP/Getty Images

The psychological impact on execution teams is one of the least discussed aspects of capital punishment in the US, yet arguably one of the most disturbing. There Will Be No Stay, a documentary film released last year, profiles two former majors in South Carolina’s department of corrections Swat team who sued the state for allegedly pressuring them into assisting in multiple executions with minimal training and no counselling (the case was eventually dismissed by a judge).

Craig Baxley, who was responsible for plunging the lethal injection syringe into at least eight prisoners, has himself attempted suicide and is now on six types of medication for PTSD and depression. One detail of his years working in the death chamber stuck in his mind: the cause of mortality given on the inmates’ death certificates was always the same: “homicide”.

The other major, Terry Bracey, told the film-makers he had struggled with the effects of trauma for years: “I expected to be trained and counseled – none of that took place. Taking that plunger and pushing it in set me on a course I wasn’t prepared for.”

The members of the Arkansas execution team are shrouded in anonymity, as they are in all death penalty states. Typically, the group consists of a “tie-down team” who escort the prisoner from his cell to the death chamber and then strap him to the gurney; medically trained personnel who set the intravenous lines; and those, like Bracey and Baxley, who sit on the other side of a glass wall and press the buttons to inject the lethal drugs into the prisoner once the team leader gives the order.

Frank Thompson gave that order twice when he was superintendent of Oregon state penitentiary – the only two completed executions in that state in over 50 years. Thompson said he could not comment on the specifics of the Arkansas team, but he was clear that based on his own experiences, they needed to be extremely careful.

Several of the members of his own team quit their jobs in the fallout of what they went through. Despite the intensive training he put them through, he said he was ultimately unable to spare them the brutalizing consequences.

“There is absolutely no way to conduct a well-run execution without causing at least one person to lose a little bit of their humanity, or to start at least one person on the cumulative path to post-traumatic stress. So for Arkansas to do this eight times in 10 days, to me that is unimaginable – it is compounding the stress, laying traumatic experiences on top of each other.”

Such trauma often manifests itself in fevered sleep and harrowing dreams. Rich Robertson recalls being hounded by a recurring nightmare after the then local TV reporter witnessed the last use of the gas chamber in Arizona in 1999 – he watched a prisoner named Walter LaGrand being engulfed in a light fog of cyanide, then gagging forcefully and flailing from side to side before slumping forward into unconsciousness.

Robertson described his dream to the Guardian: “I was standing at a window with venetian blinds just like the actual gas chamber, and the blinds opened up and I could see a crib in the middle of the room. There was a baby in the crib with lines running from its arms and legs that ran to a set of levers on the wall, and standing there was an evil-looking clown throwing the switches.”

It’s not just potential psychological damage that is raising the alarm over the Arkansas plans. Legal experts also fear that the unseemly rush could greatly increase the risk of mistakes leading to botched procedures.

Arkansas’s supply of the execution drug Midazolam is due to expire at the end of April and further stocks will be hard to secure because of a boycott by European drug companies.


Arkansas’s supply of the execution drug Midazolam is due to expire at the end of April and further stocks will be hard to secure because of a boycott by European companies. Photograph: AP

Hutchinson’s professed reason for the tight schedule is that the state’s batch of midazolam, a sedative used in many recent US executions, reaches its expiration date at the end of April and fresh supplies of the drug will be hard to secure because of the boycott of US corrections departments by pharmaceutical companies and foreign governments. Yet even without the added complications that can come from haste, midazolam has a patchy reputation in capital punishment.

It was the same drug that was deployed in the gruesome killing of Clayton Lockett in Oklahoma in 2014, in which the inmate writhed and groaned on the gurney for 43 minutes. The state’s subsequent investigation found that one factor behind the calamity was that the execution team had been placed under undue stress as they were primed to carry out two judicial killings on the same day. “Due to manpower and facility concerns, executions should not be scheduled within seven calendar days of each other,” the report concluded.

“The example of Oklahoma should be very troubling for Arkansas officials,” said Dale Baich, a defense attorney who represented Joseph Wood, who died in similarly grotesque circumstances in a botched execution involving midazolam in Arizona that same year. “What will happen if the first prisoner has the same sort of reaction as Wood or Lockett – will the governor press ahead with the next execution? This rush to execute is foolish and irresponsible.”

Jennifer Moreno, a staff attorney with the Berkeley Law death penalty clinic, said that by choosing to use midazolam, Arkansas had opted for a protocol that had no margin of error. “When you add to that the pressure of executing eight men in 11 days, you are just asking for something to go wrong – they are putting their team in a really difficult spot.”

The eight condemned men on Monday lodged a new lawsuit in a federal court in Arkansas seeking to prevent Hutchinson from going ahead with his plan. The complaint warns that the intense stress placed on the execution team, and the lack of a pause between killings to allow for review, will heighten the risk of the inmates suffering unconstitutional cruel and unusual punishment as they die.

“The people who will make up the execution team will be called upon to take part in the killing of an otherwise healthy human being, under intense scrutiny and pressure, in a process that they have little to no prior experience with, using a drug that has not been used before for executions in this state. And then they are going to be asked to do it again. And then come back to work and do it again. And again. And again. And again. And again. And finally again, for the eighth time.”