Planned Arkansas execution goes down to the wire as Supreme Court weighs in
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.
A flurry of last-minute court rulings Thursday left the latest of eight planned Arkansas executions in limbo as defense lawyers battled on myriad fronts to save a convicted murderer claiming innocence from a controversial lethal injection.
The Supreme Court denied efforts to block the executions on the basis of the condensed timetable and risks posed by a controversial sedative. The votes were 5-4 along ideological lines, with five conservative justices allowing them to go forward and four liberal justices dissenting.
Those rulings were expected to be followed by others affecting one of two men whose executions were scheduled for Thursday night. Ledell Lee, 51, came within minutes of execution several times before receiving temporary reprieves. Stacey Johnson, 47, won a state Supreme Court ruling in favor of further DNA testing.
All those court actions came after the Arkansas Supreme Court had cleared the way for another of the three drugs to be used in the executions. The court overturned a state circuit court judge's ruling 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 any executions that survive other challenges. But just as two executions Monday were blocked over mental health and legal representation issues, Thursday's were threatened by innocence claims mounted by defense lawyers seeking new hearings for DNA testing.
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. Three of those executions have been blocked; three others are scheduled for next week.
Johnson and Lee, the two prisoners originally set to die Thursday, had a bevy of lawyers from the Innocence Project and the American Civil Liberties Union battling state officials throughout the day and into the night Thursday.
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.
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 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.
But Justice Stephen Breyer, one of four justices who would have granted stays of execution for all the defendants, said further review was warranted.
"Arkansas set out to execute eight people over the course of 11 days. Why these eight? Why now?" he wrote. "The apparent reason has nothing to do with the heinousness of their crimes.... Apparently the reason the state decided to proceed with these eight executions is that the ‘use by’ date of the state’s execution drug is about to expire."
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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