Courts leave 2 more Arkansas executions in doubt

Courts leave 2 more Arkansas executions in doubt

This combination of undated photos provided by the Arkansas Department of Correction shows death-row inmates Stacey E. Johnson, left, and Ledell Lee. Both men are scheduled for execution on April 20, 2017.

Arkansas plans to try for a third time Thursday to execute at least one of its eight death row inmates, but last-minute legal rulings have thrown the effort into doubt and frustrated Gov. Asa Hutchinson.

Four of the eight executions have now been delayed for various legal reasons, ranging from challenges to the state's use of lethal drugs to appeals for more time to re-examine crucial evidence.

The legal wrangling is playing out against the backdrop of the state's accelerated effort to put eight inmates to death before the end of April, when one of its lethal injection drugs expires.

Arkansas originally set the executions over an 11-day period in April, which would have been the most by a state in such a short period since the U.S. Supreme Court reinstated the death penalty in 1976.

The legal delays have stymied the governor's aggressive timetable.

“When I set the dates, I knew there could be delays in one or more of the cases, but I expected the courts to allow the juries’ sentences to be carried out since each case had been reviewed multiple times by the Arkansas Supreme Court, which affirmed the guilt of each,” Hutchinson said in a statement.

On Monday, the U.S. Supreme Court declined to lift a stay — issued earlier in the day by the state's highest court — that blocked the imminent execution of Stacey Johnson, 47. The inmate is challenging his conviction for the 1993 killing of Carol Heath, 25, a mother of two, arguing that he should have a chance to challenge evidence in the case by using new DNA testing techniques.

The state rescheduled Johnson's execution for 7 p.m. Thursday. A second inmate, Ledell Lee, 51, who is also set for execution Thursday, likewise has appealed for a delay to allow for DNA tests on a bloody sneaker that was among the evidence in his case. Lee was sentenced to death for robbing and strangling Debra Reese, 26, who was also beaten 36 times by a tire iron in her home in 1993.

Johnson and Lee are represented in their appeals by the Innocence Project and the American Civil Liberties Union.

The stay in Lee's case Wednesday, however, involved a ruling by Pulaski County Circuit Judge Alice Gray who blocked the state from using the drug vecuronium bromide as part of its three-drug lethal execution cocktail. McKesson Corp., which produces the drug, has argued it sold Arkansas the drug for medical use, not executions and would suffer harm financially and to its reputation if the executions were carried out. It claims the state misled the company about how it planned to use the drug.

The stay, if upheld, could halt all eight pending executions. A similar stay by a state judge was overturned by a state appeals court last week.



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