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Arkansas death penalty foes hope for big Good Friday rally

Associated Press logo Associated Press 14/04/2017 By JILL BLEED, Associated Press
FILE - In this Jan. 22, 2012, file photo, documentary subject Damien Echols, from the film "West of Memphis," poses for a portrait in Park City, Utah. Echols, who spent nearly 18 years on Arkansas' death row before he and two others were freed in 2011 as part of a plea deal in which they maintained their innocence, is a vocal critic who plans to be in Little Rock, Ark., on Friday, April 14, 2017, for a rally to protest the scheduled executions of seven death-row inmates before the end of the month. (AP Photo/Carlo Allegri, File) © The Associated Press FILE - In this Jan. 22, 2012, file photo, documentary subject Damien Echols, from the film "West of Memphis," poses for a portrait in Park City, Utah. Echols, who spent nearly 18 years on Arkansas' death row before he and two others were freed in 2011 as part of a plea deal in which they maintained their innocence, is a vocal critic who plans to be in Little Rock, Ark., on Friday, April 14, 2017, for a rally to protest the scheduled executions of seven death-row inmates before the end of the month. (AP Photo/Carlo Allegri, File)

LITTLE ROCK, Ark. — While outrage on social media is growing over Arkansas' unprecedented plan to put seven inmates to death before the end of the month, the protests have been more muted within the conservative Southern state where capital punishment is still favored by a strong majority of residents.

A few dozen people regularly have kept vigil outside Republican Gov. Asa Hutchinson's mansion for weeks, holding signs that say "Thou Shalt Not Kill" and "End the Death Penalty." And the Arkansas Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty hopes to draw hundreds of participants to a Good Friday rally at the state Capitol to protest the executions that start Monday — three nights of double executions, followed by a single one. A judge last week halted a planned eighth execution.

"Arkansas is known across the world for the Little Rock Nine and all of that atrocity," said the coalition's execution director, Furonda Brasfield, referring to the 1957 desegregation battle in Little Rock involving nine black students. "And now it's the Little Rock eight in 10, and it paints our state in such a horrible light."

The group is using the hashtag #8in10 to highlight the executions, although one man has received a stay and the seven lethal injections are scheduled to take place over 11 days, the first on April 17 and the last on April 27. Hutchinson set the unprecedented schedule because a key lethal injection drug expires April 30.

On Thursday, two pharmaceutical companies, Fresenius Kabi USA and West-Ward Pharmaceuticals Corp., asked a federal judge to prevent Arkansas from using their drugs to execute inmates, saying they object to their products being used for capital punishment.

In Arkansas, a vocal critic of the plan is Damien Echols, who spent nearly 18 years on Arkansas' death row before he and two others were freed in 2011 as part of a plea deal in which they maintained their innocence. Echols, who now lives in New York, plans to attend Friday's rally along with Jason Baldwin, who also was convicted then freed in the 1993 killings of three boys in West Memphis.

"It's not even the dignity of a person being executed on their own, which is horrifying in itself," Echols said in an interview last month with Arkansas Public Media. "You know, they've stripped away even that dignity now and you're being in essence shoved into a cattle chute and killed in mass numbers. It's absolutely horrifying."

Sister Helen Prejean, a death penalty opponent who was the subject of the movie "Dead Man Walking," has taken to Twitter to fight the execution schedule, at times tweeting the phone numbers of Hutchinson and Attorney General Leslie Rutledge. On Sunday, the governor tweeted a Bible verse praising God to which Prejean replied with a verse of her own: "Blessed are the merciful."

Author John Grisham, an Arkansas native, wrote in USA Today that the schedule would result in a "spectacular legal train wreck."

"It undermines the gravity of our legal process and the death penalty itself by denying the eight due process, full access to their lawyers and established clemency proceedings," Grisham wrote. "It risks the specter of botched executions, which would haunt everyone involved and take an incredible emotional toll on the innocent staff. The plan simply risks too much."

Still, the protests in Little Rock so far have been fervent yet small, with vigils outside the Governor's Mansion typically involving fewer than 30 people. The University of Arkansas' annual Arkansas Poll last asked about the death penalty in 2015, when a strong majority of residents said they supported capital punishment.

"The families of the victims have not only had to live with the loss of their loved ones through brutal murders, but they've also had to live with the unending review of these cases year after year after year," Hutchinson said in a statement this week. "Now to suggest, after all of the court reviews have been completed, that they ought to be delayed once again shows an incredible amount of insensitivity to the victims and their families who continue to suffer because of these heinous crimes."

Death penalty opponents are appealing to Hutchinson's Christian faith, pointing out the executions will happen immediately after Easter. About 200 religious leaders signed a letter asking the governor to commute the inmates' sentences to life in prison without parole. The letter, delivered Wednesday, argued that the executions will have a negative effect on everyone involved.

"It hurts the executioners, it hurts the witnesses that are going to have to be there next week to watch those men die," said the Rev. Clint Schnekloth, pastor at the Good Shepherd Lutheran Church in Fayetteville. "It hurts the people who are preparing the drugs who are afraid that those men, after they're put to sleep, are still going to be awake and are going to burn inside for 40 or 50 minutes like some men have done when they've been introduced to this same cocktail."

Speaking to reporters Thursday, Hutchinson acknowledged the disagreement among the faith community.

"From my standpoint, I have two convictions," he said "One, that I think death penalty is an appropriate punishment in the most serious and heinous crimes in our society. Secondly, I have a duty as governor, a sworn duty, to faithfully execute the laws of our state. Those are two responsibilities I carry out. I'm comfortable with my convictions, but I certainly respect those who disagree with that."

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Associated Press writer Andrew DeMillo contributed to this report.

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Follow Jill Bleed on Twitter at www.twitter.com/jzbleed

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