(Corrects name of drug in 2nd paragraph from "pancuronium
bromide" to "vercuronium bromide")
By Steve Barnes
LITTLE ROCK, Ark., April 19 The Arkansas Supreme
Court late on Wednesday stayed the execution of Stacey Johnson,
one of two inmates due to die on Thursday, and returned his case
to the trial court for reconsideration of potential DNA
evidence, handing the state another obstacle as it tried to
execute eight prisoners in 11 days.
Minutes later a state circuit judge granted a temporary
restraining order barring the state from using one of three
drugs employed in its execution protocol. The order was
requested by McKesson Medical-Surgical, Inc, which has accused
the state of obtaining the drug, vercuronium bromide, under
McKesson said it would not have sold the drug to the
Arkansas prison system had it known it would be used in
executions. The company is demanding that the drug either be
returned or impounded.
Arkansas officials have said they are unable to obtain the
necessary drug from any other source, and have acknowledged in
court papers that should McKesson prevail, all pending
executions would be effectively blocked.
The state had planned to execute the inmates in four pairs
over 11 days. The sentences of three of the prisoners were
stayed in earlier proceedings.
State Attorney General Leslie Rutledge, a Republican, said
through her spokesman Judd Deere that she would appeal the
restraining order to the state Supreme Court. An appeal of
Johnson’s stay of execution was undecided, Deere said.
Pending before the U.S. Supreme Court is an appeal by all
eight inmates, who contend the compressed execution schedule
increased the likelihood of a botched execution and that one of
the three drugs, midazolam, has been proven ineffective in
rendering unconsciousness prior to administration of the two
A federal appeals court had rejected their arguments after a
district judge had sustained them.
The executions set for Thursday would have been the first in
Arkansas in a dozen years, and the eight together would have
been the most for any state in as a short a period since the
U.S. death penalty was reinstated in 1976.
Governor Asa Hutchinson set the unprecedented schedule due
to one of the drugs in the state's lethal injection mix expiring
at the end of the month. He said on Wednesday he was "both
surprised and disappointed" by the delays.
Johnson was convicted of the 1993 murder and sexual assault
of Carol Heath. Prosecutors said he beat, strangled and slit
Heath's throat while her 6-year-old daughter watched.
Johnson's lawyers said experts have proven the child's
testimony was unreliable. They also said the execution should be
put on hold to allow for newer types of DNA testing that were
"Today’s techniques are much more sophisticated and precise
than the methods used before trial," attorney Jeff Rosenzweig
said after the ruling. "We think it will go a long way toward
Rutledge said in a statement that the decision would be
upsetting to Heath's family.
Lee was convicted of beating Debra Reese to death with a
tire iron in 1993. On Tuesday, a state judge denied a motion
from Lee's lawyers for DNA testing.
(Reporting by Steve Barnes in Little Rock, Arkansas, and Jon
Herskovitz in Austin, Texas; Additional reporting by Sharon
Bernstein; Editing by Toni Reinhold and Bill Trott)