VARNER, Ark. (AP) — The Arkansas Supreme Court halted the executions of two men originally scheduled to be put to death Monday night, putting another legal roadblock in place in the state's plan to conduct eight lethal injections before its supply of a key drug expires at the end of April.
Justices in a 4-3 decision granted stays Monday afternoon for Don Davis and Bruce Ward. The inmates wanted stays of execution while the U.S. Supreme Court takes up a separate case concerning access to independent mental health experts by defendants. The U.S. high court is set to hold oral arguments on April 24.
Three Arkansas justices dissented, with Associate Justice Shawn Womack writing that Ward and Davis "had their day in court, the jury spoke, and decades of appeals have occurred. The families are entitled to closure and finality of the law."
The inmates' attorneys argued that their clients were denied access to independent mental health experts, saying Ward has a lifelong history of severe mental illness and that Davis has an IQ in the range of intellectual disability.
Attorney General Leslie Rutledge said she would seek an immediate review of the state high court's ruling, but did not indicate where. She could ask either the state court or the U.S. Supreme Court for the review. Rutledge said in a status update with the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals that she believes the state court's ruling was based on a misinterpretation of federal law.
This was just the latest setback for the state's plan to execute eight prisoners before its supply of the sedative midazolam expires at the end of the month. If court proceedings are pushed into May, Arkansas won't be able to carry out the executions with the drugs it has on hand.
The Arkansas high court already had issued one stay for Ward after a Jefferson County judge said she didn't have the authority to halt Ward's execution. Ward's attorneys have argued he is a diagnosed schizophrenic with no rational understanding of his impending execution.
Also, a federal judge has halted all of the planned executions on different grounds. The state has appealed that ruling to the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, which hadn't weighed in as of mid-afternoon.
The state was still moving forward with plans to conduct the Monday night executions in the event that all stays were lifted. A spokesman for Arkansas Attorney General Leslie Rutledge had no immediate comment on the latest stays, saying the office was still reviewing the court's order.
Meanwhile, the Arkansas Supreme Court also barred a state judge who blocked the multiple execution plan from taking up any death penalty related cases after he participated in a protest where he appeared to mimic a death row inmate about to receive a lethal injection. Justices reassigned any death penalty cases from Pulaski County Circuit Court Judge Wendell Griffen, who banned the state from using a lethal injection drug a supplier said was misleadingly obtained. After issuing the order, Griffen participated in an anti-death penalty demonstration where he was strapped to a cot. The high court asked a disciplinary panel to consider whether Griffen violated the code of conduct for judges.
At a federal court hearing last week, prison officials testified they must conduct the executions with their current batch of midazolam, a sedative that is intended to mask the effects of drugs that will shut down the inmates' lungs and hearts. The inmates say midazolam is unsuitable because it is not a painkiller and could subject them to a cruel and unusual punishment in violation of the U.S. Constitution.
Associated Press writers Jill Bleed in Little Rock and Kelly P. Kissel in Varner contributed to this report. DeMillo reported from Little Rock.