Fourth inmate granted last-minute stay of execution
A fourth Arkansas murderer has won a last-minute bid to delay his execution, further disrupting the state’s plan to put eight inmates to death before the April 30 expiration of a key lethal-injection drug.
By a 4-3 vote, the Arkansas Supreme Court granted a stay of execution late Wednesday to Stacey Eugene Johnson and sent his case back to the circuit court for additional DNA testing on evidence found at the crime scene.
Johnson, 47, was scheduled to be executed Thursday for the brutal 1993 murder of 25-year-old Carol Heath, who was found strangled and beaten with her throat slit in her De Queen, Arkansas, apartment.
Johnson’s attorneys with the Innocence Project argued that “newer methods of DNA testing that have never been performed in the case could provide compelling proof that Johnson didn’t commit the crime.”
“Evidence that could be tested includes: hairs, vaginal, anal and oral swabs taken from the victim’s body, fingernail samples taken from the victim, clothing worn and used by the perpetrator during the murder, and swabs taken from bite marks on the victim’s breasts,” said the project in a Tuesday press release.
In her dissent, Judge Rhonda K. Wood argued Johnson had made a “virtually identical argument to this court, which we unanimously rejected” in 2004.
“With no explanation or instruction, this matter has been remanded to the trial court for another hearing,” she said. “Today, our court gives uncertainty to any case ever truly being final in the Arkansas Supreme Court.”
A spokesman for Arkansas Attorney General Leslie Rutledge said she is considering how to proceed. She has the option of filing an appeal with the U.S. Supreme Court, which rejected her effort late Monday to overturn a stay of execution in a different case.
The Arkansas Supreme Court has granted two stays in the last week for inmates Bruce Ward and Don Davis. Their attorney had asked for a delay pending the outcome of a case before the U.S. Supreme Court on whether defendants have a right to independent mental-health evaluations.
A fourth inmate, Jason McGehee, had his execution delayed earlier this month in order to provide a 30-day comment period for the state parole board’s decision to recommend clemency.
Also scheduled to be put to death Thursday is inmate Ledell Lee, 51, who is also challenging the governor’s execution order in court.
Anti-death penalty supporters Abraham Bonowitz and Randy Gardner wait near their taped-off “protest corral” outside the Varner Unit near Varner, Arkansas.