Use of lethal drug blocked in six scheduled executions while seventh spared by top court, thwarting the states plan to execute a total of eight men in 11 days
An Arkansas judge has blocked the state from using a lethal injection drug in its upcoming executions of six men who were to be included in the Republican governors unprecedented aim of judicially killing eight men in 11 days.
The order came just hours after state supreme court halted the execution of Bruce Ward, the second to be granted to an individual among the initial eight people scheduled to die.
On the executions of the six men, Pulaski County circuit judge Wendell Griffen issued a temporary restraining order, after a company said the drug was not sold to be used for capital punishment, preventing Arkansas from using its supply of vecuronium bromide. The executions had been scheduled to start Monday night.
McKesson, a medical supply company, has said the prison system bought the drug believing it would be used for medical purposes. The company has said it had been reassured the drug would be returned and even issued a refund, but it never was.
Earlier on Friday, Ward was spared imminent execution following the intervention of the states top court. And earlier this month a federal district judge put on hold the execution of Jason McGehee after the parole board recommended clemency.
Ward had been scheduled to be the first of the men to die, at 7pm on Monday, as part of a double execution that would then have been repeated several times in the course of the ensuing 10 days. The other prisoners scheduled for execution are Don Davis, Stacey Johnson, Ledell Lee, Marcel Williams, Jack Jones and Kenneth Williams.
Fridays separate court orders set up a potentially dramatic few days with legal action certain to continue in both state and federal courts. A final answer to whether or not the executions will take place this month may not be known until the US supreme court gets involved which could come as early as Monday.
The state supreme court gave no written explanation for its order on Friday, but justices may have been swayed by arguments that the crushed timeframe of the execution schedule set out by governor Asa Hutchinson was too rushed for a substantial question of law to be properly considered. Lawyers acting for Ward had challenged Arkansas rule, unique among death penalty states, whereby the decision over whether or not a prisoner is mentally competent to die is left to the head of the department of corrections rather than to judges.
The stay for Ward, who was first reported to show mental illness as early as 1990 at his initial capital trial for murder, gives the prisoner and his defense attorneys extra time to present the courts with evidence that he has long-term mental illness. In 2006, he was evaluated by a court-recognized psychiatrist and diagnosed as a paranoid schizophrenic.
Several years ago he was diagnosed as schizophrenic by a court-recognized expert, and has been recorded to have a consistent pattern of paranoid delusions.
He has also been held in total isolation for the past 14 years, leaving his solid cell on death row only two or three times a year.
Joseph Perkovich, an attorney with the Phillips Black project who is a member of Wards legal team, said the Arkansas supreme court has been presented with a very substantial federal constitutional question. The court appears to be indicating its appreciation that full briefing and argument without the extreme pressure and time constraints of a looming execution on Easter Monday necessitated a stay of Mr Wards scheduled execution.
The state has no recourse to appeal the stay to the US supreme court, and must now rely on the state supreme court to consider the case rapidly if there is any chance for the Ward execution to go ahead. Hutchinson has attempted to justify what has been described as conveyor-belt executions on grounds that the states batch of one of the three lethal injection drugs, midazolam, reaches its expiry date on 30 April.
Hutchinson says Arkansas still intends to execute six death row inmates between Monday and April 27, a pace exceeded only by Texas since the US supreme court reauthorized the death penalty in 1976.