Update on Arkansas executions: April 20

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); Yesterday's update (April 19, 2017)

Ruling halts executions — for now

A lot hinges on today's judicial appeals.

Yesterday evening, Pulaski County Circuit Judge Alice Gray issued a ruling in favor of McKesson Medical-Surgical. McKesson argued April 19 that when the company sold Arkansas vecuronium bromide — the second drug in the state's three drug lethal injection protocol — the state said it would be used for medical purposes, not for executions. The ruling effectively halts all executions, as the state's protocol requires the drug.

Arkansas Attorney General Leslie Rutledge said she intends to appeal the decision. The only way for the Arkansas executions to continue would be if the ruling is overturned by a higher court or another supply of vecuronium bromide is located.

Today's scheduled executions

The executions of two death row inmates scheduled for today are in question due to several rulings. Both men, Stacey Johnson and Ledell Lee, have maintained their innocence and have asked the court to halt their executions until their DNA evidence is tested.

The Arkansas Supreme Court agreed in Johnson's case, halting his April 20 scheduled execution.

Johnson was convicted twice of murdering Carol Heath. The first sentence was overturned by the Arkansas Supreme Court based on “erroneously admitted” testimony from the victim's daughter. During the retrial, the victim's daughter was deemed competent and the testimony was included.

The Associated Press reports that Rutledge is reviewing the state's options, which include asking the Arkansas Supreme Court to reconsider its decision or appealing the ruling with the U.S. Supreme Court.

Lee filed a similar appeal to Johnson's with the Arkansas Supreme Court. Lee was convicted of robbing, strangling and murdering Debra Reese. He also filed a new clemency request with the Arkansas Parole Board asking them to reconsider his application based on new evidence of an intellectual disability and his claimed innocence.

Heated exchanges

Arkansas officials aren't afraid to voice their frustration regarding recent rulings.

After news broke yesterday about Johnson's stay of execution, Gov. Asa Hutchinson released a statement and said he will continue to work with Rutledge to determine the next legal steps.

"When I set the dates, I knew there could be delays in one or more of the cases, but I expected the courts to allow the juries' sentences to be carried out since each case had been reviewed multiple times by the Arkansas Supreme Court, which affirmed the guilt of each," the statement said.

Rutledge released a similar response on Twitter:

State Sen. Bart Hester used Twitter to give out the cell phone number of conservative Arkansas Supreme Court Judge Dan Kemp after he ruled in favor of Johnson's stay of execution. He also called Rutledge a "hero" and Kemp a "total zero."

Sen. Tom Cotton, R-Arkansas, is also using Twitter to voice his disdain for the rulings.

Sister of St. Joseph of Medaille Helen Prejean, author of Dead Man Walking and anti-death penalty advocate, also used Twitter in an exchange with J.R. Davis, the communications director for the governor. Prejean is hosting her first Facebook Live event this afternoon where she will be answering questions, presumably on the situation in Arkansas.

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

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