(Adds comment from state attorney general)
By Steve Barnes
LITTLE ROCK, Ark., April 15 A federal judge on
Saturday temporarily blocked plans by Arkansas to carry out a
rapid series of executions this month, after the inmates argued
the state's rush to the death chamber was unconstitutional and
Arkansas, which has not carried out an execution in 12
years, planned to begin the lethal injections of at least six
convicted murderers on Monday and complete the executions before
the end of April.
No state has ever put as many inmates to death in as short a
period since the U.S. Supreme Court reinstated the death penalty
The ruling by a federal court in Little Rock threatens that
plan, as did an order on Friday by an Arkansas state judge. The
federal judge, however, provided officials with an opportunity
to address her concerns at a hearing on Monday.
In a response filed with the court late on Saturday, State
Attorney General Leslie Rutledge said that all of the issues
raised by the condemned inmates had been previously and
"Appellees have had multiple opportunities to challenge
their convictions, sentences, and - critically - their method of
execution. Their guilt is beyond dispute, and Arkansas is
entitled to see that their victims receive justice decades after
appellees’ horrific crimes," Rutledge said in the brief.
Arkansas had scheduled the series of executions in order to
beat the expiration date on its batch of one of the three drugs
used in its lethal injection cocktail.
U.S. District Judge Kristine Baker, in a 101-page ruling,
found the state's plan would deny the inmates their legal rights
by depriving them of adequate counsel because prison officials
allow only a single lawyer to be present for any execution.
If the attorney had to rush out to file an emergency
petition, it would deprive the inmate of a lawyer to witness the
execution, Baker said.
"The court finds that plaintiffs are entitled to a
preliminary injunction based on their challenge to (the state's)
viewing policies, in their current form, as unreasonable
restrictions of plaintiffs' right to counsel and right of access
to the courts," Baker wrote.
Baker ordered lawyers for the state and the death row
prisoners to return to court on Monday with a revised plan for
viewing the executions and having defense counsel present.
'RISK OF TORTURE'
The lawsuit behind the injunction was filed on behalf of
nine condemned prisoners. One of them was never put into the
execution schedule for April. Two others won stays of execution
from state courts, leaving six of the original petitioners
currently in line for their executions to be carried out.
The state's mixture of drugs used in executions has brought
legal challenges, and Baker's ruling on Saturday also raised
questions about whether one of them, midazolam, was effective
enough at preventing pain during executions.
Arkansas employs potassium chloride in combination with
vecuronium bromide and midazolam. The latter drug is intended to
render the inmate unconscious before the other two chemicals are
administered to paralyze the lungs and stop the heart.
Governor Asa Hutchinson has said the state must act quickly
because its midazolam supply expires at the end of the month.
John Williams, attorney for some of the death row prisoners,
welcomed Baker's ruling, saying it was legally sound and
"The unnecessarily compressed execution schedule using the
risky drug midazolam denies prisoners their right to be free
from the risk of torture," he said in a statement.
Critics have contended that the drug does not achieve the
level of unconsciousness required for surgery, making it
unsuitable for executions. Supporters have said it is effective,
and the U.S. Supreme Court has authorized its use.
On Friday, Arkansas Circuit Court Judge Wendell Griffen, an
outspoken opponent of capital punishment, issued an order on
Friday blocking the state from using vecuronium bromide after a
petition from its maker, McKesson Medical-Surgical Inc. The
company, along with other pharmaceutical makers, objects to its
drug being used in executions.
Rutledge filed an emergency petition with the Arkansas
Supreme Court on Saturday seeking to overturn Griffen's order.
(Reporting by Steve Barnes; Writing by Alex Dobuzinskis;
Editing by Dan Whitcomb)