Update on Arkansas executions: April 19

by Kristen Whitney Daniels

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Editor's Note: Arkansas planned to execute eight people between April 17 and April 27, an unprecedented number of executions by one state in so few days. This set off a flurry of legal proceedings and special appeals, some of which worked in the inmates' favor. Due to the fluid nature of the situation, NCR will be providing a daily round up of the top news.

For previous coverage and background of the situation in Arkansas: Eight Arkansas executions, scheduled for late April, have opposition mobilizing (April 4, 2017)

Catholic Response

Catholic officials and organizations alike have spoken out about the executions in Arkansas. On March 2, the bishop of Little Rock, Arkansas, Anthony B. Taylor published a letter he wrote to Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson. In his letter he asked the governor to commute the sentences of the eight inmates to life in prison without parole.

The chairman of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops' Committee on Domestic Justice and Human Development issued a similar statement April 13, the day Catholics celebrated Holy Thursday and four days before executions were scheduled to begin. Bishop Frank Dewane of Venice, Florida, wrote "so often, the images of Christ's saving action stand in contrast with the activities of the world. Beginning on Easter Monday, the state of Arkansas is prepared to give us a striking and distressing example."

Catholic Mobilizing Network, a sponsored ministry of the Congregation of Sisters of St. Joseph that collaborates with the USCCB on death penalty and restorative justice issues, issued a statement April 15 following the injunctions by Arkansas Circuit Judge Wendell Griffen on Friday and U.S. District Judge Kristine G. Baker on Saturday — which halted all executions. The statement included a response from the bishop of Little Rock.

April 17's scheduled executions

However, the injunctions did not last long. The weekend was fraught with rulings made, and then later overturned. Griffen originally issued a temporary restraining order on April 14 based on a lawsuit filed by medical supply distributor McKesson Medical-Surgical. McKesson argued that Arkansas had procured vecuronium bromide — the second drug in its lethal injection protocol — under false pretenses, as the manufacturer of the drug prohibits the usage of the drug in executions.

After four days of testimony, reportedly including a statement that one of the drugs in the state's protocol was "donated" in a parking lot, Baker's decided Saturday to issue stays of executions for all of the inmates.

Following the ruling, McKesson withdrew their suit, saying it was no longer necessary due to the stay. However, Baker's decision was appealed by the state and was overturned Monday by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit. Griffen was also removed from the case by the state's Supreme Court after it was revealed that Griffen had participated in anti-death penalty demonstrations.

As the clock was ticking towards the expiration of the death warrants for Don Davis and Bruce Ward — both scheduled for execution April 17 — the Arkansas Supreme Court stepped in and issued stays of execution for both. The state then appealed only Davis' stay of execution with the U.S. Supreme Court. The U.S. Supreme Court issued a statement minutes before the expiration of Davis' death warrant, opting not to lift the stay for Davis.

Since the overturning of the court decisions, new suits have popped up. On April 18, McKesson filed a new lawsuit asking for the state to return their supply of vercuronium bromide. Death row inmates also filed a petition April 19 with the U.S. Supreme Court to overturn the Court of Appeals decision, which reversed Baker's injunction.

Two executions scheduled for tomorrow

At this time, there are no legal orders keeping the remaining five inmates from execution. Two inmates, Stacey Johnson and Ledell Lee, are scheduled for execution April 20 and both are claiming innocence.

Johnson, in conjunction with The Innocence Project, filed a lawsuit against the state of Arkansas asking for a stay of execution until his DNA can be tested. Johnson's DNA has already been tested but is appealing to have it retested due to technological advances since 1997. Johnson was tried twice for the crime, with the first conviction being reversed.

Lee is also seeking to have DNA evidence from his case tested. Attorneys from the American Civil Liberties Union and The Innocence Project filed a suit in Pulaski County Circuit Court, which was denied April 18. Lawyers have appealed this decision with the Arkansas Supreme Court and are still waiting a response.

[Kristen Whitney Daniels is an NCR Bertelsen intern. Her email address is kdaniels@ncronline.org. Follow her on Twitter: @KWhitneyDaniels.]

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