LITTLE ROCK, Ark. (KTHV) -- Lawyers for six death row inmates are challenging Arkansas' new execution law, saying it doesn't ensure prisoners won't die by cruel and unusual means.
The lawsuit filed Friday argues a law that legislators approved last month still violates existing law and is unconstitutional. The lawsuit said the inmates were convicted under a law that requires the use of an "ultra-short-acting" barbiturate along with a paralytic agent, but Arkansas now intends to use Phenobarbital, which is a drug that depresses the central nervous system that's used to treat seizures and has never before been used in executions.
This new method is stirring up several legal questions. According to the lawsuit filed Friday, Arkansas' newly approved execution law is as badly flawed as the version it replaced.
In 2012, Arkansas' Supreme Court threw out a previous execution law, saying legislators gave too much power to prison officials for carrying out executions. Now, lawyers for six inmates claim the new law puts inmates at risk for an agonizing death.
"The defense attorney, the defendants claim that it's a slow acting barbiturate that would cause a slow and painful death and is therefore cruel and unusual under the 8th amendment of United States Constitution," explained Paula Casey, interim dean of law at UALR Law School.
The lawyers said Phenobarbital is slow-acting and unproven in executions, and they claim it may not even kill those being executed at all.
"There are people on the other side who say that it's not true--that they are effective for this particular purpose and that it would be permissible to use them," added Casey.
Arkansas hasn't executed an inmate since 2005 because of court challenges, and Casey said this new lawsuit will be looked at closely.
"The good thing about our system is those questions are going to be thoroughly reviewed by the courts before any of those drugs are used<" Casey continued. "They will be argued, and everyone will have their say. The issues will be briefed, and someone will look at that very, very carefully before any of these things gets put into action."
With the previous lethal injection drug no longer manufactured. Casey said the state is responsible for finding a new drug to carry out the punishment.
"If the drug they had used in the past is no longer available to them, if lethal injection is legal as a punishment, then they have no choice than look for another drug," said Casey. "If this is the right drug? That's the issue in the lawsuit."
In an earlier statement, prison spokeswoman Shea Wilson said Phenobarbital was on a list of FDA approved barbiturates in court papers from lawyers for the inmates in a previous case.
In a statement from the Arkansas Attorney General's Office, spokesperson Aaron Sadler said:
We anticipated this lawsuit and are currently preparing our response to it.
He said the AG's office drafted this law and is confident in the constitutionality.