Arkansas Supreme Court clears way for lethal injection drug to be used in upcoming executions
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.
The Arkansas Supreme Court cleared the way Thursday for a lethal injection drug to be used in a series of planned executions, but other legal challenges threatened to block one or both of those scheduled for Thursday night.
The latest decision overturned a state circuit court judge's ruling from Wednesday in favor of drug maker McKesson Corp., which had contested the use of its paralytic drug vecuronium bromide for executions. That means the state's three-drug protocol -- including a controversial sedative, midazolam, that has resulted in botched executions elsewhere -- can be used for all pending executions.
But just as Monday's two executions were blocked over mental health and legal representation issues, Thursday's were threatened by innocence claims mounted by defense lawyers seeking new hearings over DNA testing. At least one of those claims was likely to reach the U.S. Supreme Court.
Arkansas originally sought to execute eight men, convicted of different murders decades ago, over an 11-day period because its supply of midazolam expires April 30. Now three of those executions have been blocked; three others are scheduled for next week.
The two prisoners set to die Thursday are Stacey Johnson, 47, who won a stay of execution from the state Supreme Court Thursday that Arkansas officials were contesting, and Ledell Lee, 51, who lost one challenge in that court but had two others pending. Both inmates are claiming innocence and seeking DNA tests.
In addition, the U.S. Supreme Court is considering separate challenges from lawyers representing several of the defendants over the use of midazolam, which has led to problems during executions in Alabama, Arizona, Ohio and Oklahoma.
The last-minute wrangling has frustrated Republican Gov. Asa Hutchinson's aggressive timetable for the eight executions, which would be the state's first since 2005. Since the death penalty was reinstated by the Supreme Court in 1976, no state ever has put so many prisoners to death over such a short period.
“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,” Hutchinson said in a statement.
Lee was denied a stay Thursday in one of his bids to allow time for new DNA tests on evidence connected with his case. He 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.
Unlike Lee, Johnson won a reprieve for a hearing on DNA testing. He was sentenced to death for the 1993 killing of Carol Heath, 25. Both inmates are represented in their appeals by the Innocence Project and the American Civil Liberties Union.
The only other U.S. prisoner set to die this month won a commutation Thursday from Virginia's Democratic governor, Terry McAuliffe. Ivan Teleguz, 38, was to have been executed next Tuesday for hiring someone to kill his ex-girlfriend in 2001. He had maintained his innocence.
Separately, BuzzFeed News reported that the U.S. Food and Drug Administration on Thursday blocked a shipment of thousands of illegal execution drugs on their way to Texas, setting up a potential legal battle between the Trump administration and several death-penalty states.
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