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story.lead_photo.caption Bruce Ward, left, and Don Davis

With legal questions unanswered on Day One of Arkansas' plans to execute up to eight prisoners by month's end, state prison officials are nonetheless preparing to carry out the executions as scheduled.

Easter Sunday delivered no major court decisions after a flurry of orders and appeals filed on Friday and Saturday, leaving Arkansas' execution plans shelved, at least temporarily. Legal battles will likely go before the U.S. Supreme Court today and receive a ruling, an attorney for the inmates said.

Don Davis and Bruce Ward, who have spent more than two decades on death row, would die tonight by lethal injection if the state wins late reversals of court orders by federal and state court judges that temporarily blocked the executions of Davis, Ward and six other inmates. Additionally, the Arkansas Supreme Court on Friday granted an emergency halt to Ward's execution amid claims that he is mentally incapable of understanding his punishment.

On Sunday, a federal judge in western Arkansas rejected a separate stay request from Davis, though the ruling did not change the situation because of the federal and state court orders had already halted all the executions.

Davis was moved to a cell near the execution chamber at the prison system's Cummins unit "earlier this weekend," Arkansas Department of Correction spokesman Solomon Graves said Sunday night. Ward remained at the Varner Unit but will be moved if his stays are lifted.

"Our preparations remain unchanged," Graves said.

Arkansas last put a prisoner to death in 2005, has not executed two prisoners on the same day since 1999 and has not killed six inmates in a single month since February 1926 -- the state's record, according to the Correction Department.

State attorneys have appealed most of the orders blocking executions, including Ward's stay. If Attorney General Leslie Rutledge's office prevails on all litigation active as of Sunday, seven of the eight inmates would be in line to die by April 27.

Separate court action would be required to pursue the execution of the eighth inmate, Jason McGehee, whose stay issued by a federal judge has not been appealed but whose execution warrant remains active.

Meanwhile, the inmates are waiting for a U.S. Supreme Court decision on whether it will rehear its 6-2 decision in February that denied their petition to examine state secrecy laws concerning the lethal-injection drugs, said Jeff Rosenzweig, an attorney for some of the inmates. That decision removed holds on Arkansas administering the death penalty.

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Gov. Asa Hutchinson scheduled eight inmates to die this month -- two a night on consecutive Mondays and Thursdays -- in order to exhaust the state's supply of the sedative midazolam before it expires.

Ward became the second of those inmates to individually receive a favorable court decision. After the state Parole Board recommended clemency for McGehee, a federal judge ruled that Arkansas could not execute him without running afoul of a required review period.

Rutledge spokesman Judd Deere said the office still holds the option to appeal the McGehee decision. Hutchinson has not said whether he will grant a more lenient sentence.

If prisoners are not executed on their assigned dates, Hutchinson would have to issue new death warrants, according to inmates' attorneys and Deere.

A new warrant could trigger another clemency hearing, which carries a built-in timeline that would extend beyond this month, Ward's attorneys said Friday. Deere said he could not comment on whether that's true.

"If we don't carry out the executions scheduled for [today], we will wait to hear from the governor's office as to what our next steps will be," Graves said.

U.S. District Judge Kristine Baker granted a temporary injunction for all eight inmates after deciding there is "a significant possibility" the inmates would succeed in their challenge that the method of their execution would violate Eighth Amendment protections against "cruel and unusual punishment."

[📄 DOCUMENT: Click here to read U.S. District Judge Kristine Baker's full order]

Baker's opinion also says the Correction Department's viewing policies -- which allow one attorney to witness the executions -- could infringe on a prisoner's right to counsel.

Baker wrote that if an attorney needed to petition a court during the execution, he would have to leave the room and go to a separate building on the prison grounds in order to use a telephone. This policy would leave the inmate without an attorney present and delay the attorney's ability to seek remedies, she wrote.

"Minutes matter during an execution," the opinion says. "Any delay diminishes the likelihood that a court could provide a meaningful remedy in the event of an ongoing constitutional deprivation."

Rutledge's office appealed Baker's decision to the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. A three-judge panel will hear the appeal.

Rosenzweig said the prisoners would appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court if the decision doesn't go their way and that he anticipates Rutledge's office would do the same.

"There will be [a] ruling from the Supreme Court, assuming a party takes it to the Supreme Court," based on previous history, Rosenzweig said. "If something is before the court, they will rule."

Deere said he did not "want to speculate" on what action Rutledge's office would take if the appellate court upholds Baker's ruling.

Baker didn't rule fully in the inmates' favor. She dismissed their claims that the compressed execution schedule risks causing needless suffering and impedes their right to counsel. The prisoners' attorneys on Sunday appealed those dismissals to the 8th Circuit.

Baker, in issuing the injunction, also found "a significant possibility" the inmates could succeed in proving that the state's planned use of midazolam "qualifies as an objectively intolerable risk that plaintiffs will suffer severe pain."

Federal judges based in other states have taken up the same question -- most recently an Ohio judge granted a similar injunction that the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals upheld on April 6.

Midazolam is the first of three drugs the Correction Department plans to administer in the executions, followed by vecuronium bromide, a paralytic that prevents breathing, and the heart-stopping potassium chloride.

Arkansas' difficulty in obtaining those drugs has come into focus in the past few days as three pharmaceutical companies claimed the state improperly obtained their products and sought to block their use in executions.

McKesson Medical-Surgical Inc., which distributes the paralytic, won a temporary restraining order Friday to stop Arkansas from using the drug in executions, claiming that the Correction Department obtained it through deceit and that the company would suffer "irreparable harm" if it is used in executions.

Pulaski County Circuit Judge Wendell Griffen, who protested the death penalty Friday at the Governor's Mansion, issued the order and set a hearing for Tuesday morning. Rutledge's office on Saturday filed an emergency appeal with the Arkansas Supreme Court.

McKesson on Saturday filed a motion to vacate the order and dismiss the suit, both with the circuit court and the state Supreme Court. The company, whose spokesman did not respond to an email Sunday, said in court filings that Baker's ruling eliminated the need for the order because it halted the executions.

In an order issued Sunday night, U.S. District Judge Susan Hickey of the Western District of Arkansas denied separate motions filed Wednesday by Davis' attorneys for relief of judgment and a stay of his execution.

Information for this article was contributed by The Associated Press.

A Section on 04/17/2017

Print Headline: Rulings aside, state readies for 2 executions tonight


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Archived Comments

  • MaxCady
    April 17, 2017 at 9:28 a.m.

    Time to roll up the sleeves, fellas.

  • RBear
    April 17, 2017 at 11:29 a.m.

    TravisBickle, maybe you need to research the article more. The core of the dispute is the use of midazolam. Only four states have used the drug in the three-drug protocol, two of which had botched executions. A third, Florida, has since abandoned it for use in executions, replacing with another drug. When midazolam was used in a two-drug mixture, even those had botched results. The federal judge is right in issuing the temporary stay on the use of this drug, the first which is designed to comply with the Eightieth Amendment.
    A little fact-finding goes a long ways on these matters.

  • mrcharles
    April 17, 2017 at 12:14 p.m.

    the killer awoke before dawn, he put his boots on , and he said-- I'm late, I';m late for an important date.

    “Alice: How long is forever?
    White Rabbit: Sometimes, just one second.

    Arkansas prepares to join the 2nd decade of the 21st century with Iran, Saudi Arabia and China.

    Yet I guess this does prove the Fear , "Yes the State indeed has the power to kill its own citizens, just arguments over when and how and why". Perhaps all distinctions without a difference.

  • epeeking
    April 17, 2017 at 2:24 p.m.

    Their executions should have been carried out shortly after they were sentenced. It is ridiculous that it took so long to get to even this point. None of these guys cared one damn about their victims, so it should be of no consequence if these totally worthless beings should experience some discomfort in their final minutes. They deserve to receive much more, before going to their rightful place in Hell. Perhaps we should make these executions as painful as possible to be more of a deterrent. Obviously a death penalty alone isn't one if people are not being executed for decades.

  • RBear
    April 17, 2017 at 2:52 p.m.

    Epeeking, what do you say about wrongful convictions by overzealous prosecutors or police officers? Echols was exonerated of his death penalty. I've spoken with 3 such individuals from other states who were in the same situation. Had the state not allowed appeals to take place and run their course, the state would have murdered those individuals. I've heard you speak of stopping the murder of babies. What about the state-sanctioned murder of innocent individuals?