“Why these eight? Why now?”
That was the question U.S. Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer asked Arkansas just hours before the state put inmate Ledell Lee to death on Thursday, the state’s first execution since 2005.
Arkansas, which announced an unprecedented plan to execute 8 inmates in 11 days, battled a flurry of legal challenges that delayed its execution schedule until Thursday night, when Lee became the first inmate to die. Three other inmates were given stays, and a fourth was recommended for clemency. A drug distributor also sued to stop its product from being used in the executions; it won a temporary restraining order twice, only to have that order removed, twice. A separate federal court ruled to stop all the executions, only to see a higher court overturn that order, allowing the executions to proceed. Petitions were sent to the U.S. Supreme Court. Ultimately, a divided Supreme Court declined to halt the executions, but Breyer still wanted to know why this all had to happen in the first place.
“Apparently the reason the State decided to proceed with these eight executions is that the ‘use by’ date of the state’s execution drug is about to expire,” Breyer wrote in his dissent. “In my view, that factor, when considered as a determining factor separating those who live from those who die, is close to random.”
That execution drug is midazolam, a controversial sedative that led to botched executions in states like Oklahoma, Ohio, Arizona, and Alabama, where prisoners regained some form of consciousness during the lethal injection procedure. Lee’s execution was the first time Arkansas has used midazolam in its three-drug lethal injection cocktail.
Up until Lee’s final minutes, it was not certain that he would be executed. His lawyers filed several last-chance appeals, leading the Arkansas Supreme Court and then the U.S. Supreme Court to delay his execution by hours. But despite Lee’s lawyers argument that he had a mental disability that had never been properly evaluated, the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals denied his request for a stay. Late Thursday night, the Supreme Court also denied his motions for a stay.
Another inmate, Stacey Johnson, had also been scheduled for execution on Thursday, but received a stay Wednesday.
Lee, who maintained he was innocent, declined to eat a last meal and instead took communion. He was sentenced to death for the 1993 murder of 26-year-old Debra Reese, who was strangled and beaten to death in her own home.
Arkansas has set two more executions for April 24 and April 27.
CORRECTION (April 27, 11:37 p.m.): An earlier version of this article misstated the role of the plaintiff seeking the temporary restraining order. It was sought by a drug distributor, not a drug manufacturer.