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Federal Court Blocks 7 Executions Set For 11-Day Span In Arkansas

This combination of undated photos provided by the Arkansas Department of Correction shows the death row inmates in question. Top row (from left): Jack Harold Jones Jr., Marcel Williams, Stacey E. Johnson, Ledell Lee. Bottom row (from left): Jason F. McGehee, Kenneth Williams, Don Davis and Bruce Earl Ward. McGehee's execution was blocked by federal judge last week.
Arkansas Department of Correction via AP
This combination of undated photos provided by the Arkansas Department of Correction shows the death row inmates in question. Top row (from left): Jack Harold Jones Jr., Marcel Williams, Stacey E. Johnson, Ledell Lee. Bottom row (from left): Jason F. McGehee, Kenneth Williams, Don Davis and Bruce Earl Ward. McGehee's execution was blocked by federal judge last week.

Updated at 2:45 p.m. ET April 17

A series of court orders in Arkansas has halted the executions of seven men set to begin Monday night, throwing another wrench into the state's plans to carry out the executions before its lethal injection drugs expire.

U.S. District Judge Kristine Baker ordered a preliminary injunction in federal court early Saturday, according to the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. This ruling came less than 24 hours after the state's supreme court stayed one execution, and a county court indefinitely delayed the rest.

There were originally eight inmates scheduled to die over an 11-day period, a pace unprecedented since the death penalty was brought back in the U.S. in the 1970s. One inmate's execution had already been blocked earlier this month.

In the ruling, Baker wrote that "there is a significant possibility that plaintiffs will succeed on the merits of their Eighth Amendment challenge to Arkansas's lethal injection protocol."

The inmates' lawyers expressed concern that Arkansas' method of execution had a high risk of causing pain, among other things.

The Democrat-Gazette reports:

"Baker issued the ruling after presiding over a four-day trial on a case filed by the [inmates]. They were set to be executed two at a time between Monday and April 27, with lethal injections scheduled on consecutive Mondays and Thursdays. ...

"The inmates' attorneys sought to temporarily block the executions, arguing that the compressed schedule increases the likelihood of potentially harmful mistakes. The quick pace also prevented the men from preparing an adequate defense, which violates their federal due-process rights, the lawyers argued.

"Arkansas has not executed an inmate since 2005 due to both legal challenges and difficulty in maintaining a drug supply. Gov. Asa Hutchinson set the 11-day schedule as the expiration of one of the drugs in the state's three-drug lethal cocktail neared. Midazolam, set to expire at the end of April, is an anesthetic given before the injection of fatal drugs."

Later on Saturday, Hutchinson released a statement acknowledging that the timeline for the executions "would trigger both the individual clemency hearings and separate court reviews" but expressed optimism that the state would prevail in the matter — and do so quickly enough to beat the drugs' expiration date.

"I expect both the Supreme Court of Arkansas and the 8th Circuit Court of Appeals to review the decisions quickly, and I have confidence in the Attorney General and her team to expedite the reviews," Hutchinson's statement reads.

Before Baker's injunction, Pulaski County Judge Wendell Griffen had issued a temporary restraining order that blocked the executions for an entirely different reason.

His order was based on a complaint by a pharmaceutical supplier who alleged that Arkansas had purchased one of the lethal injection drugs under false pretenses.

On Thursday night, the medical supplier McKesson issued a statement objecting to the manner in which the state obtained its vecuronium bromide, another of the three drugs in the cocktail. McKesson supplies the drug — which is produced by Hospira and its parent company, Pfizer — to pharmacies, hospitals and other organizations.

"The Arkansas Department of Correction intentionally sought to circumvent McKesson's policies to procure Pfizer's vecuronium bromide under the auspices that it would be used for medical purposes in ADC's health facility," McKesson said in its statement.

The company says it tried multiple times to get the state to offer assurances the drug wouldn't be used in lethal injections or simply to get the drug returned, and that McKesson even refunded the cost, but the state did not comply.

McKesson's complaint prompted Griffen to issue a temporary restraining order. His involvement has been controversial, because on Friday he was photographed at a protest against the executions. A spokesman for the state attorney general said Griffen should have recused himself from the case, given his stance on the death penalty.

Other companies have complained about the third drug used in the protocol, potassium chloride. (The Associated Press explains that "under Arkansas' protocol, midazolam is used to sedate the inmate, vecuronium bromide then stops the inmate's breathing and potassium chloride stops the heart.")

Fresenius Kabi USA and West-Ward Pharmaceuticals Corp. — the presumed makers of the state's supply of potassium chloride and midazolam, respectively — also filed a friend of the court brief in the inmates' case, "objecting to their drugs' use in the executions."

Earlier on Friday, the Arkansas Supreme Court stayed the execution of one of the inmates, Bruce Ward. According to his attorney, Scott Braden, Ward is mentally ill and "has no rational understanding of the punishment he is slated to suffer or the reason why he is to suffer it."

Braden also states:

"We are grateful that the Arkansas Supreme Court has issued a stay of execution for Bruce Ward so that they may consider the serious questions presented about his sanity. He deserves a day in court for that, but in Arkansas the rules do not permit that. Instead, they give the power to director of the department of corrections to decide whether the department can execute someone or not. That is both unfair and unconstitutional."

The other inmates had argued that the speed with which the executions were to go forward trampled on their rights, stunting clemency proceedings and causing them undue suffering.

Last week, U.S. District Judge D. Price Marshall Jr. proved partially receptive to that argument, ruling that the original schedule did not allow enough time for the clemency petition of one of the death-row inmates, Jason McGehee, to proceed.

Since a parole board recently recommended clemency for McGehee, Marshall said the execution schedule prevented the full 30-day comment period on McGehee's petition.

As NPR's Camila Domonoske noted, the ruling bumps McGehee's execution past the end-of-April expiration date for its supply of midazolam.

Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson has defended the timeline of the executions, citing the expiration date of the state's supply of midazolam.

"One of the three drugs in the lethal injection protocol expires at the end of April," Hutchinson said in a statement emailed to NPR last month. "In order to fulfill my duty as Governor, which is to carry out the lawful sentence imposed by a jury, it is necessary to schedule the executions prior to the expiration of that drug."

He notes that despite the compressed execution schedule, the inmates have in some cases already received "decades of review."

It is "important to bring closure to the victims' families who have lived with the court appeals and uncertainty for a very long time," Hutchinson says.

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Colin Dwyer covers breaking news for NPR. He reports on a wide array of subjects — from politics in Latin America and the Middle East, to the latest developments in sports and scientific research.
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