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Arkansas vows to continue execution spree after courts stop first two lethal injections

by Taylor Dolven
Apr 18 2017, 1:55pm

Minutes after the U.S. Supreme Court prevented the state of Arkansas from executing a death row inmate Monday, state Attorney General Leslie Rutledge vowed just past midnight to proceed with two other executions as part of the state’s original plan to kill eight death row inmates in 11 days.

“The families have waited far too long to see justice, and I will continue to make that a priority,” Rutledge said in a statement.

It was a long day for Rutledge (pictured) and the inmates’ attorneys, who have been battling in state and federal court since Gov. Asa Hutchinson announced in February that the state would speed up executions before its supply of the controversial lethal injection drug midazolam runs out at the end of April.

On Monday afternoon, the Arkansas Supreme Court blocked the executions of convicted murderers Don Davis, 54, and Bruce Ward, 60, which had been scheduled for that night. The court said it granted the stays due to McWilliams v. Dunn, a case pending before the U.S. Supreme Court involving the question of whether indigent defendants are entitled to independent expert witnesses.

The inmates’ lawyers argued that the ruling in that case, whose oral arguments are scheduled for April 24, could apply to Davis and Ward.

“Both Mr. Ward and Mr. Davis were denied independent mental health experts to help their defense attorneys investigate, understand, and present these critical mental health issues to the jury,” Assistant Federal Defender Scott Braden said in a statement.

Arkansas appealed the stay in Davis’ case to the U.S. Supreme Court Monday evening, hoping to still go through with the execution that night. Corrections officials moved forward with the lethal injection preparations and even served Davis his supposed last meal. But at 11:45 p.m. CT, the Court ruled to keep the lower court’s ruling in place, ensuring the execution would not happen.

There are still five Arkansas executions scheduled before the end of April; a state parole board voted to recommend one of the original eight death row inmates, Jason McGehee, for clemency. He was given a stay in early April.

Stacey Johnson, 47, and Ledell Lee, 51, are scheduled to be executed Thursday starting at 7 p.m. CT. Both men were convicted of murders in 1993, and both maintain their innocence after more than two decades on death row. The Innocence Project joined Johnson’s attorneys Monday in filing a request for a stay of execution in the Sevier County Circuit Court.

“Newer methods of DNA testing that have never been performed in the case could provide compelling proof that Johnson didn’t commit the crime,” the Innocence Project said in a statement.

The circuit court denied the request late Monday night, saying Johnson’s claims are being made too late and arguing that he failed to prove the DNA results would “advance his claim of innocence.” Johnson’s attorneys appealed immediately.

Meanwhile, the ACLU joined Lee’s attorneys in filing a request for a stay in the Pulaski County Circuit Court, arguing he is mentally incompetent and that there is evidence from the murder scene that was never DNA tested. Lee has a hearing in that case Tuesday.

There are also two executions scheduled for April 24 and one scheduled for April 27.