Arkansas cannot execute anyone until an inmate lawsuit challenging the secrecy over lethal-injection drugs is decided at trial, a Pulaski County circuit judge ruled Friday, 11 days before the first two convicted killers were scheduled to die.
Order denying state's request to dismiss execution lawsuitView
Temporary order halting executionsView
The three-page ruling by Judge Wendell Griffen putting executions on hold comes two days after attorneys for the eight convicted killers with scheduled executions asked for the delay.
No trial date has been set, but the judge said Friday that he would schedule proceedings in the coming days.
The lawsuit, filed by nine capital-murder convicts, also survived its first legal challenge, with Griffen rejecting arguments by state lawyers that the lawsuit is baseless.
Arkansas Attorney General Leslie Rutledge deplored the judge's decision.
"It is unfortunate that once again justice is being delayed for the victims of the crimes committed by the death-row prisoners who filed this lawsuit," Rutledge said in a news release. "I respectfully disagree with the court's decision not to dismiss the lawsuit brought by the prisoners and to delay their executions."
State officials say the secrecy over how the drugs are procured is necessary to protect suppliers from being harassed by death-penalty opponents and from a backlash by the public.
Countries like England that have abolished the death penalty bar manufacturers in that country from selling drugs to be used for executions.
The inmates' attorneys say their clients need to know where the drugs come from so they can be sure they will be executed humanely in the manner prescribed by law.
In Griffen's denial of the state's motion to dismiss the suit, also released Friday, the judge ruled that the death-row prisoners have presented sufficient evidence to prove that four of their five claims against the state should be decided at trial.
The four arguments are whether:
• The Department of Correction's refusal to identify the maker of its execution drugs violates a June 2013 agreement signed by the attorney general's office and the lawyers for the inmates.
• Arkansas can obtain execution drugs even if it is required to disclose the manufacturer. State law keeps the drug supplier secret.
• The inmates' right to know whether their executions will be conducted lawfully is illegally infringed upon by denying them knowledge of the source of the drugs that will be used to put them to death.
• The inmates will be put to death without being subjected to constitutionally barred levels of pain and suffering, particularly since the law allows for the return of the electric chair if lethal injection is not possible.
The judge dismissed the accusation in the killers' lawsuit that the death-penalty enabling legislation, Act 1096 of 2015, violates the separation of powers doctrine of the Arkansas Constitution.
The state Supreme Court settled that question when it sided with the attorney general's office in its March ruling involving last year's death-penalty lawsuit, Griffen's 19-page ruling states.
The inmates had claimed that lawmakers gave away too much of their authority to prison officials when they passed Act 1096, but the high court rejected that argument in its ruling on Act 139, the lethal-injection statute of 2013, the judge wrote.
The Supreme Court's decision in March restored Arkansas' authority to implement the death penalty after years of litigation had called into question the legality of the execution procedures.
The first executions were set for Oct. 21. Gov. Asa Hutchison had scheduled the eight inmates to be executed in pairs in four sessions over a 13-week span, with the final executions Jan. 14.
Litigation over the death penalty has prevented any Arkansas executions in 10 years. The last person put to death was Eric Nance of Malvern in November 2005 for the rape and murder of an 18-year-old woman whose car had broken down on the side of the road in Hot Spring County.
Arkansas has 31 men on death row. The most recent to be added was Zachary Holly, sentenced in May in Benton County for raping and killing a 6-year-old girl.
The inmates who filed the lawsuit -- represented by attorneys Jeff Rosenzweig, Deborah Sallings and federal public defender Josh Lee -- are Don W. Davis, 52, sentenced in 1992 in Benton County; Stacey Eugene Johnson, 45, sentenced in 1994, Sevier County; Jack Harold Jones, 51, sentenced in 1996, White County; Ledell Lee, 50, 1995, Pulaski County; Jason McGehee, 39, 1998, Boone County; Terrick Terrell Nooner, 44, 1993, Pulaski County; Bruce Earl Ward, 58, 1990, Pulaski County; Kenneth Dewayne Williams, 36, 2000, Lincoln County; and Marcel Wayne Williams, 45, 1997, Pulaski County.
Davis and Ward were scheduled to be executed on Oct. 21, with Johnson and Nooner set for death on Nov. 3, Jones and Marcel Williams on Dec. 14, and McGehee and Kenneth Williams, Jan. 14.
The ninth plaintiff, Lee, has exhausted his appeals but has no execution date scheduled.
The defendants in the inmates' lawsuit are Correction Department Director Wendy Kelley, who is responsible for procuring the execution drugs, and the department itself. Representing them are assistant attorneys general David Curran and Jennifer Merritt.
A Section on 10/10/2015
Print Headline: Decision puts off executions of 8 in state