The US Supreme Court has concluded a dramatic day of legal debate over Arkansas’ unprecedented plan to execute eight prisoners in just 11 days.
The Supreme Court declined to permit the state to go ahead with Monday night’s scheduled executions, in what amounted to a major victory for the condemned inmates’ lawyers and anti-death penalty campaigners. The outcome is certain to give weight to the other pending cases, and confidence to the defense lawyers of the remaining five death-row inmates who still face execution, starting with Stacey Johnson and Ledell Lee on Thursday of this week.
The Supreme Court took several hours to reach its decision, finally announcing at 11.50pm that it had declined to lift a stay on the execution of Don Davis, 54, imposed earlier in the day by the Supreme Court of Arkansas. The judgment brought the number of condemned prisoners who have now been spared the audacious execution schedule set by Republican State Governor Asa Hutchinson to three. The State Governor has found himself in a rush to use a batch of the lethal injection drug midazolam before it expires at the end of the month. Had the Governor’s proposed schedule gone according to plan, it would have marked the most intense schedule of executions in the US in more than 50 years. Even double executions on the same day are rare; the last time it was attempted, by Oklahoma in 2014, it led to a “bloody mess”.
Scott Braden, an attorney for Davis, said the US Supreme Court Justices had heard that Davis had been denied proper independent counsel on the question of his mental health. According to his defence counsel, Davis has an intellectual disability, a history of head injuries, brain damage, fetal alcohol syndrome, and other mental health conditions.
In a statement, Hutchinson said:
“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.”
Hutchinson’s schedule had seemed certain to proceed, after a ruling from the Eighth Circuit Appeals Court in St Louis, Missouri, which overturned an earlier temporary injunction imposed by a federal judge. That had opened up the possibility that at least six executions might still go ahead between now, and the end of April.
The Eighth Circuit Appeal overturned the ruling by federal district judge Kristine Baker, in which she questioned the reliability of midazolam, the sedative that is used as the first chemical in Arkansas’ triple lethal injection protocol.
“If midazolam does not adequately anaesthetise plaintiffs, or if their executions are ‘botched’, they will suffer severe pain before they die,” Baker wrote in her opinion.
Until the decision came down from the US Supreme Court, officials with the Arkansas Department of Corrections had been undertaking preparations for the execution to go ahead. Davis had been given his final meal, witnesses had been put in place in the death chamber, and the execution team was being readied.
Of course, Hutchinson’s schedule has merely been limited, not curtailed in its entirety. Attention now swings to the next set of executions on Thursday and beyond. The governor’s spokesperson underlined the determination of the state to press on with its grim timescale. The spokesperson has said the state “will continue, on Thursday, on Monday and then Thursday”, referring to the schedule of death warrants that allows for two executions to take place on each of the next two set dates, and one on 27 April.
But lawyers for the next prisoners set to be executed are already gearing up for an intense legal battle. The influential Innocence Project has joined local defence lawyers in Arkansas to call for DNA testing in the case of Johnson, and the ACLU has also now filed on behalf of Lee on grounds of DNA testing and innocence, and intellectual disability.
As a new death warrant would have to be set for Davis and Ward, with the process of final review of their cases having to start from scratch, it is understood there is not time to reschedule their executions this month in time to avail of the midazolam before its expiration date.
It must be recalled that due to strict distribution controls imposed by more than 30 drug companies in the US and abroad, it is now very difficult for states which carry out the death penalty to acquire medicines for use in state executions.
It remains to be seen what unfolds for the other men currently scheduled for execution. It also remains to be seen whether the death penalty is slowly but surely scheduled for its own end in the USA.