Court steps in hours before planned Arkansas execution
Arkansas was preparing to carry out the state’s first execution in more than a decade Friday morning even as the U.S. Supreme Court temporarily postponed the lethal injection and other appeals threatened further delays.
Arkansas expected to begin an unprecedented wave of executions this week, plans that were imperiled by a series of court orders halting some of the eight lethal injections originally set for April.
As part of its aggressive scheduling, Arkansas planned to carry out back-to-back executions on Thursday night at a state prison southeast of Little Rock. But that was abandoned when a state court blocked one of those lethal injections, and officials instead focused solely on plans to execute Ledell Lee, 51, by lethal injection.
Lee was sentenced to death in 1995 for the killing of Debra Reese, who was brutally beaten to death in her home two years earlier. According to court petitions and his attorneys, Lee has long denied involvement in Reese’s death, and he was seeking DNA testing to try to prove his innocence.
Appeals filed by Lee’s attorneys hoping to delay his execution were rejected by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 8th Circuit. He also petitioned the U.S. Supreme Court not long after justices Thursday night denied other stay requests filed by several Arkansas death-row inmates. Lee filed a volley of appeals at the high court seeking a stay of execution, saying that technology exists that could verify his innocence and arguing that he has an intellectual disability that should prevent his execution.
“It is inappropriate for the state to rush to execute before a defendant’s innocence claim can be properly examined,” Nina Morrison, a lawyer with the Innocence Project and an attorney for Lee, said in a statement Thursday.
Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr., who is assigned cases from the federal circuit covering Arkansas, then issued an order pushing Lee’s execution back until 8:30 p.m. local time in Arkansas “or pending further order of the undersigned or of the Court, whichever is later.”
If Lee’s execution is carried out, he would be the first Arkansas inmate put to death in 12 years. After two scheduled executions were blocked this week, Arkansas had shifted its focus to a pair of lethal injections — Lee’s and Johnson’s — that were scheduled to take place back-to-back Thursday night.
Court orders issued Wednesday threatened to derail the state’s plans: The Arkansas Supreme Court stayed Johnson’s execution, which had been planned for Thursday, while a state circuit court judge issued a broader order that temporarily prohibited the state from using one of its three lethal-injection drugs.
State officials challenged both orders on Thursday, and they succeeded in one case but were denied in the other. The Arkansas Supreme Court granted a request to stay the order preventing officials from using the lethal injection drug, which the state had called a de facto stay of all planned executions. That same court then rejected a request to lift its stay halting Johnson’s execution.
The court offered no explanation for the order, saying only that Johnson, who has been on death row since 1994, should be allowed to press on with his motion for post-conviction DNA testing. Johnson, 47, was sentenced to death for the murder of Carol Jean Heath, a woman brutally killed in her home.
The Arkansas attorney general does not plan to further appeal Johnson’s stayed execution, which did not occur Thursday night.
Arkansas authorities were expected to contest other court orders that might block their path in this or other executions, much as Lee’s attorneys were likely to mount challenges in an effort to halt the lethal injection. The state and death-row inmates have been waging battles in state and federal courts over these lethal injections.
The broader fight in Arkansas centers on the state’s aggressive plan to carry out executions for the first time since 2005. Earlier this year, Gov. Asa Hutchinson (R) scheduled eight executions over 11 days in April, a pace unmatched for the modern American death penalty. Hutchinson said that it was not his preference, but that it is necessary because one of the state’s lethal-injection drugs will expire at the end of the month.
Arkansas officials have defended the schedule because they have no guarantee of obtaining new lethal-injection drugs amid an ongoing shortage, and they have to carry out the death sentences of eight men convicted of capital murder.
Death-row inmates, their attorneys and civil-liberties advocates have criticized the frantic pace, with former corrections officials joining them in saying they worry that it heightens the odds of a mistake.
By early Thursday evening, Arkansas appeared to have given up on four of the planned eight executions for this month, including the halted execution scheduled for Thursday.
The U.S. Supreme Court on Thursday night released orders denying requests from Arkansas inmates seeking to stay the executions. This marked the first time that Justice Neil M. Gorsuch, who joined the court this month, voted to create a conservative majority. In one order, the court was split 5 to 4, with Gorsuch joining the majority in denying the stay and the court’s four liberal members saying they would have granted it.
In one order, Justice Stephen G. Breyer, who has questioned the “arbitrary” nature of the death penalty’s implementation, wrote a dissent saying that the state’s push to carry out executions before its drugs expire “reinforce that point.”
Arkansas has also faced criticism from drug companies that are unhappy that their products may be used in executions. Two companies filed a brief last week asking a federal judge to block the use of their drugs, which include midazolam, a commonly used sedative that has prompted controversy when utilized in executions. State officials say their stock of the drug expires April 30.