The first death sentences in Arkansas occurred during the revolutionary war. Several soldiers were convicted of colluding with the British to kill Americans at Arkansas Post. The convicted were executed by firing squad at New Orleans. Death sentences and executions have come and gone, and methods changed but state sanctioned murder continues to this day.
From territorial times up to 1914 executions were carried out by hanging – hanged by the neck until dead. The intent was for the execution to be rapid. When the prisoner is “dropped” the rope is intended to sever the cervical vertebra which would make death essentially instantaneous. If the spine is not snapped death occurs slowly by strangulation, accompanied by fits and jerks before suffocation is complete.
To ensure more rapid execution, use of the electric chair was instituted in 1914. From this time to 1990 executions were conducted by strapping the convicted into a wooden chair, placing electrically conducting straps on the legs and skull cap over the head. A current of about 1500 volts at 10 amps for 30 seconds is sufficient to kill most but some have survived for as long as 30 minutes, causing smoke to emanate from the mouth and electrical contact points.
Seeking evermore efficient or cost effective or humane methods, the State of Arkansas has turned to lethal injection, using several lethal recipes over the years. Initially executions were conducted with a single drug, Sodium Pentothal. This a so called rapid acting barbiturate. Similar drugs in lower oral doses have been used as sleeping pills since the 1930s. For an execution, a large dose is injected into a vein resulting in its rapid distribution throughout the body. Sedation, and cessation of breathing and heart beat ensues.
Currently the legislature determines the drug cocktail for executions. A three drug mixture is used. The first drug administered is a mild sedative called Midazolam. This is the same drug which failed to do its job in a botched execution in Oklahoma last year. The convicted was apparently not sedated and cried out and writhed in pain for some time before dying.
Next in the cocktail is Vecuronium Bromide. This drug has a similar mechanism of action and in fact is modeled after Curare. This is the stuff of the poison darts used in Central and South America. It works by weakening or paralyzing skeletal muscles without any anesthetic effect. This drug alone is lethal but would take several minutes for death to occur after the breathing stops.
The coup de grace is accomplished with Potassium Chloride. Large intravenous doses of this agent stops the heart by interfering with nerve conduction. Interestingly KCl is used as a salt substitute for those who need to reduce the use of table salt, Sodium Chloride.
None of this addresses the why or more correctly the “should?” Should we execute murderers? Are executions conducted in the spirit of old Testament revenge? Must people die for justice? The innocence Project has exonerated over 300 wrongly convicted, some of those on death row. Considering the fallibility of jury trials, wouldn’t life in prison, with a chance of exoneration if new evidence comes to light be the more humane action?