Protesters gather outside the state Capitol building on Friday, April 14, 2017, in Little Rock, Ark., to voice their opposition to Arkansas' seven upcoming executions. (AP Photo/Kelly P. Kissel)

Courts weighing whether Arkansas executions can happen

April 17, 2017 - 2:58 pm

LITTLE ROCK, Ark. (AP) — Arkansas moved forward with its attempt to begin a series of double executions Monday night despite rulings in state and federal courts that the inmates were entitled to additional appeals.

The state's lawyers pressed the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals to allow the executions to begin, saying that the inmates were simply stalling so a key lethal injection drug would expire. The inmates' legal team urged a three-judge panel to avoid a "rushed analysis of this complex record."

Meanwhile, the Arkansas Supreme Court on Monday also barred a state judge who blocked the multiple execution plan from taking up any death penalty related cases after he participated in a protest where he appeared to mimic a death row inmate about to receive lethal injection. Justices reassigned any death penalty cases from Pulaski County Circuit Court Judge Wendell Griffen, who banned the state from using a lethal injection drug a supplier said was misleadingly obtained. After issuing the order, Griffen participated in an anti-death penalty demonstration where he was strapped to a cot. The high court asked a disciplinary panel to consider whether Griffen violated the code of conduct for judges.

Arkansas set up a schedule to execute eight prisoners before its supply of the sedative midazolam expires at the end of the month. If court proceedings are pushed into May, it won't be able to carry out the executions with the drugs it has on hand. Despite some legal setbacks for the state, it was still possible the executions could begin at 7 p.m. Monday.

"We're in place and ready to go for whatever the court rules," said J.R. Davis, a spokesman for Gov. Asa Hutchinson. The governor was monitoring the courts and planned to visit with the attorney general and Arkansas Department of Correction leaders to discuss any next steps.

Among the decisions the state is appealing is one from a federal judge who on Saturday halted all of the executions so the inmates could pursue claims their deaths could be especially painful.

The inmates asked the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals to take its time reviewing transcripts and rulings, rather than complete their work in two days as the state has asked.

"Reject the state's request for a rushed analysis of this complex record," they wrote. They also want the court to schedule oral arguments.

Arkansas solicitor general Lee Rudofsky countered by telling the 8th Circuit that the inmates are simply trying to run out the clock — "blatantly attempting to manipulate the judicial system and shield themselves from justice."

That's not the only legal obstacle the state faces.

It's also appealing Griffen's order that the prison system not use a paralyzing drug until he could determine whether the state obtained it properly.

It has asked the Arkansas Supreme Court to reconsider its decision to put on hold the first of the scheduled lethal injections, of Bruce Earl Ward, after his attorneys argued that he is a diagnosed schizophrenic with no rational understanding of his impending execution.

The state has not said whether it will appeal a federal judge's decision to grant a stay to another inmate, Jason McGehee, who had won a clemency recommendation from the state Parole Board. State law requires a 30-day comment period on favorable recommendations, but those 30 days expire after Arkansas' midazolam supply.

At a federal court hearing last week, prison officials testified they must conduct the executions with their current batch of midazolam, a sedative that is intended to mask the effects of drugs that will shut down the inmates' lungs and hearts. The inmates say midazolam is unsuitable because it is not a painkiller and could subject them to a cruel and unusual punishment in violation of the U.S. Constitution.


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