The Arkansas Supreme Court on Tuesday halted the executions of eight inmates -- including two scheduled for today -- until their challenge of the state's execution law can be resolved in a lower court.
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The high court, in its order, ruled that a circuit judge overstepped his authority when he stayed the executions earlier this month, but then the high court issued its own stay.
Last week, the Arkansas attorney general's office asked the Supreme Court to nullify an Oct. 9 stay issued by Pulaski County Circuit Judge Wendell Griffen. State attorneys also asked the high court to expedite a hearing in Griffen's court on the inmates' lawsuit challenging a state law passed this year that keeps secret the supplier of the drugs used in executions.
On Tuesday, the Arkansas Supreme Court sided with state attorneys' arguments that Griffen's stay of the executions exceeded his authority because, unlike the governor or the Supreme Court in the case of appeals, a circuit court does not have the authority to stay executions.
The high court dissolved Griffen's stay but then granted the request from the prisoners' attorney for new stays of the executions.
The order said Chief Justice Howard Brill and Justice Paul Danielson would have let Griffen's ruling and stay stand, while Justice Rhonda Wood would have dissolved Griffen's order but would not have stayed the executions.
On the same day he stayed the executions, Griffen set a March 1 trial date for the challenge of the law.
Nine death-row inmates sued over the state's execution law in June; eight of those inmates since were given execution dates. Their attorney, Jeff Rosenzweig, said there will be a lot more filings and motions over the coming months but that he was pleased with Tuesday's outcome.
"We've got a lot of legal issues to settle by March 1," Rosenzweig said. "But I am gratified by the court's decision."
Gov. Asa Hutchinson, who in September scheduled the inmates' executions, issued a news release stating that he was disappointed for those families who were victimized by the men set to be killed.
"The Court ruling will mean more delays and more uncertainty," Hutchinson wrote. "I am gratified the Supreme Court ruled that Judge Griffen exceeded his authority and acted improperly by issuing the stay. While the case is sent back to have a full hearing, it is my hope that the court will expedite the case so 20-year delays do not become 21-year delays."
On Tuesday, Arkansas Attorney General Leslie Rutledge -- who requested on Sept. 1 that Hutchinson set execution dates -- released a statement that said that although her office was successful in undoing Griffen's stay, the outcome was disappointing.
"While the Supreme Court's decisions is not about the merits of the case, it is unfortunate that this further delays justice for the victims," Rutledge said. "I will continue to defend Arkansas's lethal injection statute and fight for the victims and their grieving families."
State attorneys had suggested the inmates were attempting to delay executions past June 2016, the expiration time of one of the state's three execution drugs. Once the drug is expired, the state can't acquire any more, according to a court filing last week.
The Arkansas Supreme Court had already granted a stay in one of the executions. The stay for Bruce Ward, one of two who was to be executed today, was granted while he appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court.
In a related matter Tuesday, federal public defenders sought an emergency stay on Ward's behalf in federal court in Little Rock, arguing that despite being diagnosed as schizophrenic, he has spent more than 25 years in solitary confinement without any treatment for his mental illness.
Assigned to U.S. District Judge James Moody Jr., the case seeks to permanently enjoin the state from executing Ward on the grounds that the state has violated prohibitions in state and federal laws against cruel and unusual punishment.
It cites "unmistakable indications of his mental distress and illness" dating back to 1990, before his first sentencing, and says his attorneys have "witnessed his psychological decompensation" over the years.
Also Tuesday, the Arkansas Parole Board voted 5-2 against recommending the governor commute the death sentence for another of the eight inmates, Stacey Johnson.
Parole Board administrator Solomon Graves said the board's decision not to recommend a commutation of Johnson's death sentence was based on several factors. He said the board used "due diligence" in considering a request in which a prisoner's life hangs in the balance.
Graves said that it's possible that Johnson could apply again for clemency but the scheduled executions and the ongoing litigation are complicating variables. He was unsure of how soon Johnson might be able to seek clemency again.
Arkansas last executed a death row inmate in November 2005. Since then, a series of legal challenges and a shortage of available drugs used for execution kept the state from putting anyone to death.
The lack of supply has slowed executions across the country, according to the Death Penalty Information Center in Washington, D.C. The center reported that since capital punishment resumed in the mid-1970s, domestic executions peaked in 1999 at 98, falling to 35 in 2014 and 24 so far this year.
Prison officials, and lawmakers contend that fewer companies are willing to sell lethal injection drugs out of fear of public backlash.
During this year's legislative session, lawmakers passed Act 1096, which requires state officials to keep the source of the drug supply secret from the public and prisoners.
Rosenzweig initially filed a lawsuit in state court challenging Act 1096 shortly after it became law. In late June, Rosenzweig refiled in Pulaski County Circuit Court. His lawsuit contends that his nine death row clients were entitled to review the supply of the drugs following the settlement of a 2013 lawsuit against the prison system. Rosenzweig said his clients need to be able to inspect the source of the drugs to ensure that their executions will be conducted in a humane and therefore constitutional way.
The head of state prisons, Wendy Kelley, told Griffen's court on Friday that the lone source of its current supply of lethal injection drugs refused to sell Arkansas anymore and that she is unaware of any other available supply.
The prisoners' attorneys argued that there is plenty of time to settle their challenge of state law before the June expiration date and, pointing to Griffen's ruling, argued there are several disputes over facts in the case that need to be heard in a trial court.
Information from this article was contributed by Linda Satter of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.
Metro on 10/21/2015
Print Headline: Justices stay 8 executions; today's 2 off