A federal judge on Saturday blocked Arkansas' plan to carry out six executions over 10 days, saying the condemned inmates have a constitutional right to challenge a drug protocol that could expose them to “severe pain.”
Arkansas planned to quickly appeal the ruling in an apparent effort to stay on track with the first execution set for Monday.
The state, which has not held an execution in 12 years, originally scheduled eight over a short period of time to beat the April 30 expiration date of midazolam, a key drug used in the process. Gov. Asa Hutchinson has said he wants to use the drugs before they spoil.
Another federal judge and the state Supreme Court already granted stays to two of the original eight inmates, reducing the number of executions to six within an 11-day period
No state ever has executed so many prisoners in such a short time span, although Texas, twice in 1997, executed eight prisoners in a single month, according to the Death Penalty Information Center.
The preliminary injunction by U.S. District Judge Kristine G. Baker, in Little Rock, came a day after Pulaski County Circuit Judge Wendell Griffen issued a temporary restraining order barring Arkansas from using its supply of another drug — vecuronium bromide — in the executions.
After the sedative midazolam is administered, vecuronium bromide stops the breathing and potassium chloride stops the heart.
"The state of Arkansas does not intend to torture plaintiffs to death," Baker wrote. "However, the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition of cruel and unusual punishment is not limited to inherently barbaric punishments. A condemned prisoner can successfully challenge the method of his or her execution by showing that the state’s method 'creates a demonstrated risk of severe pain' and 'the risk is substantial when compared to the known and available alternatives.'"
Attorney General Leslie Rutledge criticized the ruling, saying on Twitter, "It is past time for the victims' families to see justice for the horrible murders of their loved ones."
Her spokesman, Judd Deere, said it was "unfortunate" that Baker had "chosen to side with the convicted prisoners in one of their many last-minute attempts to delay justice." Rutledge also wants to vacate the state court ruling and remove Griffen, whom Rutledge claims participated in an anti-death penalty demonstration the day he issued his decision.
John C. Williams, assistant Federal Public Defender and attorney for some of the death row prisoners, praised the federal court ruling and called on the state to "cancel the frantic execution schedule and propose a legal and humane method to carry out its executions.”
The death row inmates range in age from 38 to 60 and include one who came within six hours of execution in 2010 before a state supreme court halted it as a prelude to examining the law on capital punishment. The condemned were convicted of especially gruesome killings, including one woman whose throat was slit after she was beaten and strangled. Another victim was hit 36 times by a tire tool. In another case, the inmate was convicted of suffocating a young mother of two after raping her.
One of the inmates, Kenneth Williams, was sentenced to death for killing a man while escaping from prison. He earlier received a life sentence for the 1998 killing of an Arkansas-Pine Bluff cheerleader, Dominique Hurd. After jurors spared his life in that case, he turned to the girl’s family and taunted them, saying “You thought I was going to die, didn’t you?”
Baker's case dealt with execution procedures and scheduling as well as access to counsel. It formally applies to nine prisoners, although the execution of one of them had not been scheduled. Other judges had stayed the executions of two prisoners.
“The court finds that plaintiffs are entitled to a preliminary injunction based on their method of execution claim under the Eighth Amendment,” she wrote in her ruling.
In the separate case Friday, Griffen issued the temporary restraining order blocking the use of vecuronium bromide after the supplier of the drug filed a complaint in court saying it had been mislead by the prison system. McKesson said it believed Arkansas bought the drug to be used for medical purposes, not for executions. The company said it was reassured the drug would be returned and even issued a refund, but the drug was never returned.
The latest federal and state court developments came as the Arkansas Supreme Court issued yet another emergency stay Friday afternoon to stop the execution of a seventh man who was to die Monday under the accelerated schedule.
Bruce Ward was scheduled to die for his conviction in the 1989 strangulation of a woman at a convenience store where she worked. Ward's lawyer, public defender Scott Braden, has argued that Ward's severe schizophrenia would have made his execution unconstitutional.
"We are extremely grateful to the Arkansas Supreme Court for recognizing the serious issues presented in Mr. Ward's case," Braden told USA TODAY.
"He is mentally ill and not competent to be executed under the Eighth Amendment," Braden said regarding the measure that forbids the federal government to impose cruel and unusual punishment.
Ward's mental illness has rendered him unable to understand the gravity of his case or his execution, Braden has said.
Contributing: Richard Wolf, Melanie Eversley.