LITTLE ROCK, Ark. -- Arkansas is running out of time to put eight prisoners to death before one of its lethal drugs expires next month, even if the state Supreme Court gives a quick green light after hearing an inmate challenge next week.
The state finds itself against a deadline because its supply of the paralytic vecuronium bromide - one of the three drugs in Arkansas' lethal drug protocol - has a June 2016 expiration date. Pharmacy experts said that means they'll expire June 30, and the drug supplier has said it won't sell the state more.
The Arkansas Supreme Court will hear oral arguments on May 19 in the inmates' constitutional challenge to the state's execution secrecy law, which allows the state to keep secret the manufacturer, seller and other information about the lethal drugs.
Gov. Asa Hutchinson set dates last year for the first executions since 2005, but the court granted stays until the inmates' challenge was heard.
If the justices rule quickly and in favor of the state, Arkansas would have five weeks or less to conduct the executions because of the looming expiration date.
In that time, the Arkansas Parole Board would have to arrange clemency hearings - though it would have to waive a policy that sets a deadline of 40 days before their execution for inmates to apply for a hearing.
"We generally try to stay within the parameters of the policy as best as we can," Parole Board Chairman John Felts said. "Certainly it would be a situation where we would have to do a lot of coordination. It would be something we have certainly not done before."
The Department of Correction would also have to consider whether it can conduct eight executions because of a protocol requiring that two sets of drugs be prepared for each inmate - in case something goes wrong with the initial dose.
Arkansas had enough doses for eight executions, but after sending some of the drugs for potency and purity tests, inventory records show there are only 15 complete doses of two of the drugs.
Under the protocol, two sets of syringes are prepared for each inmate. Once the drugs are drawn from vials into a syringe, they must either go into the inmate or be "properly disposed of."
Department of Correction spokesman Solomon Graves would not clarify whether a backup dose for one inmate can be used for another execution, if two are scheduled for the same day. He said ongoing litigation prevented the department from commenting.
The attorney general's office also declined to comment on questions related to the likelihood executions would occur, citing the lawsuit.
Executions are stalled in many states because of court challenges or drug shortages caused by pharmaceutical companies objecting to their drugs being used in death chambers.
Only Texas has executed eight inmates in one calendar month during the last four decades - eight each in May and June of 1997, according to a database of state executions kept by the Death Penalty Information Center, a nonprofit group that opposes executions and tracks the issue. Oklahoma had seven executions in January 2001.
"Even in the days when you had multiple executions on the same day, I don't know if anyone was faced with having to sign that many (execution) warrants potentially in such a short window of a time," said Matt DeCample, a communications consultant who worked as a spokesman for former Arkansas Gov. Mike Beebe's administration.
Hutchinson's office wouldn't say whether he'd consider setting execution dates for just some inmates.
"We're following the action by the court, and we will address those questions once a decision is made by the court," Hutchinson spokesman J.R. Davis said.