Arkansas execution plan again thrown into doubt

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In this Monday evening, April 17, 2017 photo, the sun sets behind clouds over an Arkansas State Police command post outside the Varner Unit of the Arkansas Department of Correction near Varner. Anti-death penalty supporters Abraham Bonowitz, left, and Randy Gardner wait near their taped off "protest corral" outside the Varner Unit late Monday, April 17, 2017 near Varner, Ark. Anti-death penalty supporters Abraham Bonowitz, left, and Randy Gardner wait near their taped off "protest corral" outside the Varner Unit late Monday, April 17, 2017 near Varner, Ark.

State Attorney General Leslie Rutledge, a Republican, said through her spokesman Judd Deere that she would appeal the restraining order to the state Supreme Court.

An appeal of Johnson's stay of execution was undecided, the attorney general's spokesman said.

Griffen's order was dissolved on Monday by the Arkansas Supreme Court on the basis of McKesson's decision to withdraw the lawsuit.

Arkansas' attempt to carry out its first executions in almost 12 years has been thwarted by a state Supreme Court that's been the focus of campaigns by conservative groups to reshape the judiciary.

Arkansas prepared to execute two inmates on Thursday despite court rulings that have stymied the USA state's plan to conduct multiple lethal injections before one of the drugs it uses expires at the end of April. In 2015, justices upheld Oklahoma's execution protocol that used the same drug.

Arkansas' attempt to carry out a spate of executions before the end of the month has run into two fresh legal obstacles.

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"Because (Lee), like Stacey Johnson, has never gotten a hearing on his DNA petition, and has maintained his innocence for over two decades, we are hopeful that the Arkansas Supreme Court will also grant him a stay and give him a hearing on the DNA evidence", said the Innocence Project's Nina Morrison, who is one of Lee's attorneys.

The victim, Carol Jean Heath, was raped and murdered in her DeQueen, Arkansas home, and the defense believes that there remains a large amount of untested DNA evidence that could prove Johnson's innocence.

In a 4-3 ruling late Wednesday afternoon, the state's highest court issued a stay for Johnson and ordered a new hearing in lower court for Johnson to make his claims. It was used in a "botched" Oklahoma execution in 2014, when a conscious inmate faced 40 minutes of paralysis and agonizing pain before suffering a heart attack.

Lawyers for the state were asking courts to clear a path for a double execution scheduled for Thursday night. One of those cases spared Don Davis, who again received a stay Monday night. A drug supply company says Arkansas obtained the drug under false pretenses.

Griffin said he used phone calls and text messages a year ago to order one of Arkansas' three execution drugs. Arkansas Department of Correction Deputy Director Rory Griffin said he didn't keep records of the texts, but McKesson salesman Tim Jenkins did.

Griffin told the judge that he explicitly told Jenkins about the intended objective of the drug.

Even if Arkansas wins reversals at the state level, the eight inmates who were scheduled to be put to death this month have three requests for reprieves at the U.S. Supreme Court.

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The state described the inmates' challenge as a last-minute delay that would "manipulate the judicial process". The filing says: "As is oft said, justice delayed is justice denied". This time it's the result of a drug supplier suing to block usage of its product in the state's lethal injections. A ninth death-row inmate who does not have a scheduled execution date also signed on to the request.

Last week, a federal judge in Little Rock blocked the executions, citing concerns with the sedative midazolam that has been used in problematic executions in other states. But the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals reversed that order Monday, and the inmates appealed that decision to the U.S. Supreme Court.

The judge facing re-election, Courtney Goodson, lost her bid for chief justice past year after conservative groups blanketed the state with ads attacking her.

The case was sent back to the Sevier County Circuit Court. Once her order was in, the state filed a notice that it would appeal.

Arkansas has been trying to execute eight men before its supply of another drug, midazolam, expires. But courts have blocked three of those executions from going forward.

Gray said that drug, vecuronium bromide, "was essentially obtained illegally by the state", NPR member station KUAR's Jacob Kauffman told Morning Edition.

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