Arkansas court blocks 1 execution set for Thursday


Meanwhile, the Arkansas Supreme Court on Wednesday granted a stay of execution to inmate Stacey Johnson, who had been set to die Thursday.

Stacey Johnson was convicted of killing Carol Heath in 1993 in Sevier County, AR. Johnson's attorney, Jeff Rosenzweig, wants a court to order new DNA testing on hair found in the victim's apartment and on clothing that prosecutors found at a rest stop and linked to Johnson.

In its 4-3 ruling in the Johnson case, the state's highest court followed the same split it did on Monday, when it halted two other executions involving different inmates, Bruce Ward and Don Davis.

Inmate Ledell Lee is also set for execution Thursday night but he also has legal challenges pending before several courts, including a similar request for more DNA tests. Judge Wendell Griffin's decision was vacated Monday by the Arkansas Supreme Court, as we reported.

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Lawyers for the two men have asked Arkansas courts to halt the executions for DNA testing they say could prove their clients' innocence and to consider judicial shortcomings, including a previous trial lawyer for Lee who came to court drunk, was removed from the hearing and ordered to undergo a drug test.

In the vecuronium bromide case, a state prison official testified that he deliberately ordered the drug a year ago in a way that there wouldn't be a paper trail, relying on phone calls and text messages.

Arkansas Department of Correction spokesman Solomon Graves said Wednesday night that the state had not obtained a new supply of vecuronium bromide, which is the second of three drugs used in Arkansas' lethal injection protocol.

"It is understandable that the inmates are taking every step possible to avoid the sentence of the jury; however, it is the court's responsibility to administer justice and bring conclusion to litigation", Gov. Asa Hutchinson said Tuesday in an emailed statement. In text messages from Jenkins' phone, which came up at Wednesday's court hearing, there is no mention that the drug would be used in executions.

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Attorney General Leslie Rutledge said she will appeal Judge Gray's decision to the Arkansas Supreme Court.

Lawyers for the inmates set to be executed Thursday are relying primarily on claims the men are innocent.

All executions are on hold in the state of Arkansas after a judge issued a restraining order on a key lethal injection drug Wednesday. "I have ultimate respect for the court and I'm not going to question individual decisions but I would say there is frustration among the Legislature as to the court's continued refusal to allow an execution to go through", said Hutchinson, who chairs the Senate Judiciary Committee. Two pharmaceutical companies filed a court brief last week asking a federal judge to block Arkansas from using their drugs, but the judge did not rule on that issue. "It is inconceivable that this court, with the facts and the law well established, stays these executions over speculation that the (U.S.) Supreme Court might change the law".

A blizzard of legal challenges resulted in three of the executions being halted and raised broader questions about the lethal injection drug mixes and death chamber protocols in USA executions, which hit a quarter-century low in 2016.

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Arkansas officials are vowing to press ahead despite the setback to plans to resume capital punishment after a 12-year hiatus. Since 2011, many European drug companies, in an alignment with the European Union's objection to death penalty, have chose to cease shipment of their drugs to US prisons that carry out executions via lethal injections.