Arkansas Supreme Court Allows Use Of Contested Drug, Clearing Hurdle For Executions
Updated at 6:45 p.m. ET
Arkansas's highest court has lifted one of many obstacles to the state's plan to carry out several executions by the end of the month — including one scheduled for Thursday night.
In a Thursday ruling, the Arkansas Supreme Court lifted an order forbidding the state to use one of three lethal injection drugs. The Supreme Court reversed a ruling by a lower court in favor of a drug supplier. The company had argued that the drug, vecuronium bromide, had been purchased under false pretenses.
McKesson Corp. had "claimed that the state deliberately circumvented [company restrictions] to use the drugs for executions. [The firm was] told the drug would only be used in prison health clinics for its proper medicinal use, as opposed to putting prisoners to death," NPR member station KUAR's Jacob Kauffman told Morning Edition.
Pulaski County Circuit Judge Alice Gray had sided with the San Francisco-based company, saying that the execution drug "was essentially obtained illegally by the state."
Gray's decision had effectively stayed all scheduled executions. But the decision by Arkansas' high court clears the way for the execution of Ledell Lee on Thursday night.
Arkansas had initially scheduled eight inmates to die over an 11-day period in April — the fastest pace of executions in decades.
The state has justified the pace of the scheduled executions, saying its supply of another lethal injection drug, the sedative midazolam, expires at the end of April. Arkansas and other states have found it difficult to persuade drug companies to sell drugs for use in capital punishment.
Another execution had been scheduled for Thursday but was stayed by the state Supreme Court on Wednesday. Gov. Asa Hutchinson said he was "surprised and disappointed" by the decision to stay Stacey Johnson's execution.
"When I set the dates, I knew there could be delays in one or more of the cases," Hutchinson said, "but I expected the courts to allow the juries' sentences to be carried out since each case has been reviewed multiple times by the Arkansas Supreme Court, which affirmed the guilt of each."
Johnson and Lee both say they are innocent. "They both want the use of new DNA technology, new DNA testing, that they haven't gotten since they were first convicted in the early '90s," Kauffman reported.
Earlier Thursday, The Arkansas Democrat-Gazette reported that the state went forward with preparations for the executions despite the previous hold:
"In preparation for their scheduled executions, Johnson and Lee were moved Tuesday to the Cummins Unit, the location of the state's execution chamber, a prisons spokesman said Wednesday.
"The spokesman, Solomon Graves, said the two are being held in separate cells adjacent to the execution chamber, which is a short drive down the road from the Varner Unit, another prison that houses death-row inmates.
"Neither inmate had been moved back to the Varner Unit as of Wednesday evening, and Graves said the prison was awaiting guidance from the governor and attorney general."
Kauffman reported that the uncertainty is stressful for the victims' families. "But in many ways," he says, "it's emotions they've experienced before, since these executions have been going through different legal hurdles for 20 years or so."