Arkansas Supreme Court grants stay of execution for one condemned inmate

Lauren Perry
April 16, 2017

A US judge in Little Rock on Saturday temporarily blocked plans by Arkansas to hold a rapid series of executions this month, after the inmates argued the state's rush to the death chamber was unconstitutional and reckless.

If Griffen's order remains in place, it would essentially stay all of the scheduled executions, state officials said in court filings challenging it Saturday. Last week, a federal judge issued a stay on the execution of inmate Jason McGehee after the parole board recommended he be eligible for clemency. Ward's attorneys had asked for the stay after a Jefferson County judge said she didn't have the authority to halt Ward's execution.

"The rapid schedule will put an extraordinary burden on the men and women required by the state to carry out this most solemn act, and it will increase the risk of mistakes in the execution chamber - which could haunt them for the rest of their lives", said Allen Ault, Georgia's former commissioner of corrections who has overseen five executions, writing in Time magazine's March 28 edition.

"The state of Arkansas does not intend to torture plaintiffs to death", Baker wrote.

She said the condemned prisoners had the right under the Eighth Amendment of the US Constitution - which bans "cruel and unusual punishment" - to challenge the state's plans to put them to death by lethal injection with a controversial three-drug cocktail.

The prison's "execution protocol and policies fail to contain adequate safeguards that mitigate some of the risk presented by using midazolam and trying to execute that many inmates in such a short period of time", Baker wrote in her opinion.

State courts have also upheld secrecy laws in Arkansas, Georgia and Oklahoma, and the Supreme Court ruled in favor of Arizona's drug secrecy in a 2014 case.

If the executions move forward, they will be the first in Arkansas in over a decade. She ordered the state to return on Monday with a revised execution plan.

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"I understand how hard this is on the victims' families, and my heart goes out to them as they once again deal with the continued court review; however, the last minute court reviews are all part of the hard process of death penalty cases", Hutchinson said in a statement. Since then, two of the inmates received court stays, one of which was issued Friday.

Drug distributor McKesson Medical-Surgical Inc. argued vecuronium bromide was intended only for medical purposes, not executions, and that the Arkansas Department of Correction "misled" the company when it purchased the drug, according to a court brief.

The state originally planned to execute eight inmates, but two had previously been blocked by state and federal courts. The lawsuit is among a flurry of challenges the inmates have filed to halt the executions.

The Arkansas attorney general's office said the decision strayed from previous cases before the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals and the U.S. Supreme Court. This was an execution that took about three quarters of an hour, and it was the same three-drug protocol that Arkansas planned to use. "This decision is significantly out of step with precedent from the Eighth Circuit and the U.S. Supreme Court".

The preliminary injunction by U.S. District Judge Kristine G. Baker, in Little Rock, comes one day after a Circuit Court judge in Pulaski County, Ark., issued a temporary restraining order barring Arkansas from using its supply of another drug - vecuronium bromide - in the executions. The mounting legal fight adds further uncertainty to a situation that had recently made Arkansas the epicenter of the country's debate over the death penalty.

During four days of hearings that lasted into the evening last week, anesthesiologists testified in Baker's court that midazolam does not block pain; that the second drug meant to stop the person from breathing can leave him gasping for breath; and that the third drug meant to stop the person's heart from beating can produce burning pain. Local media outlets had tweeted photos and video of Griffen appearing to mimic an inmate strapped to a gurney at the demonstration.

Arkansas was set to execute two of eight men by lethal injection on Monday night.

"ADC (the Arkansas Department of Correction) personnel used an existing medical license, which is to be used only to order products with legitimate medical uses, and an irregular ordering process to obtain the vecuronium via phone order with a McKesson salesperson", the brief said.

Other reports by VgToday

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