The US state of Arkansas is racing to execute eight death row inmates in 10 days in April to beat the expiration date on midazolam, a hard-to-get drug used in lethal injections.
Death penalty opponents have denounced the rush to execute, with the New York Times saying it was for a reason "as mundane as it is absurd."
The eight men facing the ultimate punishment have been on death row for an average of two decades, but are now on a fast track to die.
Under a decree signed by Arkansas Governor Asa Hutchinson, the first two prisoners will be put to death on April 17, followed by two more on April 20, another two on April 24 and the last pair on April 27. April's executions will reduce its population of death row inmates by a quarter.
According to the Death Penalty Information Center (DPIC), an independent organisation, no state has ever carried out eight executions in 10 days.
Since the US Supreme Court reinstated the death penalty in 1976, only Texas has put to death eight people in a single month. That was in 1977, the year executions resumed in the United States.
Scheduling two executions on the same day is in itself "unusual," according to the DPIC.
"States have executed two or three inmates on the same day just ten times in the last forty years, and no state has carried out more than one double execution in the same week," it said.
Arkansas's problem with execution drugs
Arkansas has been grappling with a drug problem at the state level. It has not executed anyone since 2005, but largely because of a shortage of lethal drugs.
Many drug companies in the US and European Union object to the use of their products in executions and have refused to sell to prisons. In 2016, big pharma Pfizer joined dozens others by regulating how its products were distributed so that none made their way into lethal injections at prisons.
In 2015, a British pharmaceutical company suspected Arkansas was using its products to execute inmates despite a clear understanding between the two that the drugs were not to be used for capital punishment. Hikma Pharmaceuticals previously had a contract with the Arkansas prison but cancelled it in 2013 after the state bought lethal drugs from Hikma’s US entity, West-Ward Pharmaceuticals.
An Arkansas law shielding execution policies made it difficult for the pharmaceutical company to determine if its products were being used. However, the Associated Press reported the prison had stocks of midazolam bought from West-Ward, meant for the lethal injection.
In 2011, the US Drug Enforcement Administration seized sodium thiopental from Arkansas amid legal questions about how the state obtained them. The drugs were bought from a small British operation that shared a building with a driving school.
The Arkansas protocol for lethal injections combines three drugs, beginning with midazolam. Critics say the sedative is not powerful enough to assure that the condemned is unconscious during the execution, raising the risk he will experience severe pain.
The drive to execute eight people this April stems from the US Supreme Court's refusal last month to take up a challenge to the protocol Arkansas uses for lethal injections, effectively validating it.
Although midazolam is legal, Arkansas's stocks are nearing their expiration date and it is extremely difficult to replace them.
"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," the governor said.
The measure has set off waves of criticism far from the borders of the rural southern state.
Hutchinson "is justifying a state-sanctioned killing spree driven by the use-by date stamped on a bottle," the New York Times said, calling the decision "absurd."
Kenneth Roth, executive director of Human Rights Watch, also denounced the "grotesque rush" to execute.