Julie Vandiver doesn’t normally represent four death row inmates who are all scheduled to die in a matter of days. As a federal public defender, her office usually has just one client and months to file legal motions to get an execution stayed. But there’s nothing normal about the way executions are being handled in Arkansas right now.
Arkansas is attempting something no other state has done: execute seven men in 11 days. The reason, Gov. Asa Hutchinson says, is an expiring lethal injection drug that will only last through April. That compressed schedule has put enormous pressure on public defenders like Vandiver, who are working until 1 a.m. and foregoing time with their families as they exhaust all legal pathways to halt the lethal injections. Their efforts, though, may prove unsuccessful.
“It’s horrible,” Vandiver says. “We cannot possibly do the things we need to do. The fact that they’ve stacked these guys up like this makes it impossible for us to do everything.”
Vandiver is an assistant federal public defender in the capital habeas unit for the eastern district of Arkansas. She’s currently defending four men — Don Davis, Bruce Ward, Marcel Williams and Jason McGehee — all of whom were convicted of murder and have been on death row for about two decades. McGehee was initially one of eight men scheduled to be executed but received a stay from a federal judge earlier this month.
Vandiver and Jeff Rosenzweig, an attorney representing three other death row inmates set to be put to death, have filed a series of motions to get stays of execution for their clients. In federal court this week, Vandiver argued that the rushed schedule denied the right to counsel for her clients and made it difficult to properly appeal for clemency.
But despite the legal challenges, Gov. Hutchinson, a Republican, has maintained that the state should move forward, citing the problems in obtaining an alternative to midazolam, a sedative that has been at the center of a number of problematic executions over the last few years.
“In order to fulfill my duty as governor, which is to carry out the lawful sentence imposed by a jury, it is necessary to schedule the executions prior to the expiration of that drug,” the governor said in a statement. “It is uncertain as to whether another drug can be obtained, and the families of the victims do not need to live with continued uncertainty after decades of review.”
Vandiver and her team are currently awaiting a ruling by U.S. District Judge Kristine Baker, which could come as early as Friday. But no matter the outcome, Vandiver hopes this is not something the state will attempt again.
“What Arkansas is doing is a total outlier,” she says. “It’s never been done this way. It really shows they are off the map as far as acceptable behavior. It’s offensive to rush the execution of seven or eight guys because of an expiration date.”
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