The Supreme Court late Monday blocked the first of at least six executions planned in Arkansas over the next two weeks after a dizzying day of state and federal court disputes about lethal injection drugs, mental health claims and the right to legal representation.
The justices’ action represented a setback, but not a final blow, for Arkansas officials as they race the clock to execute convicted murderers before the state’s supply of a controversial sedative used for executions passes its expiration date. If that happens, all the executions will be put on hold.
Justices turned down Arkansas Attorney General Leslie Rutledge’s request to vacate a stay for Don Davis, 54, who was set to die Monday night by lethal injection. It’s the second time in seven years that Davis, who was convicted in a 1992 murder, has come within hours of execution before courts intervened.
Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson released a statement saying he was disappointed in the delay. "While this has been an exhausting day for all involved, tomorrow we will continue to fight back on last minute appeals and efforts to block justice for the victims’ families,” the statement read.
The order does not affect executions still planned for Thursday and next week, among eight originally scheduled with unprecedented haste over an 11-day period because of the looming deadline. A federal district court had blocked all the executions Saturday, but the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 8th Circuit reversed that decision. Other courts blocked two of the executions over separate issues of competency and clemency.
While the last-minute appeals raised technical issues involving the defendants’ legal rights and courts’ jurisdiction, the state’s effort to execute its first prisoners since 2005 focused largely on the drugs to be used. One of them, the sedative midazolam, has been associated with botched executions in Alabama, Arizona, Ohio and Oklahoma. Another, vecuronium bromide, was said by its manufacturer to have been obtained by the state under false pretenses.
The planned executions have renewed the debate over lethal injection in particular and capital punishment in general, which has been in decline for nearly two decades. No state has executed so many prisoners in such a short time span. Twice in 1997, Texas executed eight prisoners in a single month, according to the Death Penalty Information Center.
The Supreme Court refused to hear the prisoners’ appeal in February, along with another case from Alabama. At the time, Justices Sonia Sotomayor and Stephen Breyer dissented. Sotomayor has been the court's leading critic of midazolam; Breyer has questioned the constitutionality of capital punishment.
The high court has tossed out two Texas death sentences this year — one because of racially discriminatory testimony, the other because of an outdated definition of intellectual disability. It is scheduled to hear two more death penalty cases on April 24, the date two more Arkansas prisoners are slated for execution.