By Steve Barnes
LITTLE ROCK, Ark. (Reuters) - The state of Arkansas on Friday ran into a pair of new legal obstacles to its plan to carry out lethal injections on seven murderers in an unprecedented series of executions before the end of the month.
The Arkansas Supreme Court granted an emergency stay of execution for Bruce Ward, 60, who was convicted of killing a convenience store clerk, and less than two hours later the executions of six other murderers were put on hold when an Arkansas circuit judge issued a temporary restraining order.
The judge’s restraining order barred the state from administering one of three drugs it planned to use in the executions, which are scheduled to begin on Monday and stretch over 11 days.
Attorney General Leslie Rutledge plans to file an emergency request for the Supreme Court to vacate that order, a spokesman said, allowing the injections to commence.
The state, which has not carried out an death sentence in 12 years, scheduled the fast-paced executions in order to beat the expiration date on its batch of one of the drugs used in its lethal injection cocktail.
An eighth inmate who had been scheduled to die also won a stay earlier, removing him from the list for April execution.
Lawyers for all of the convicts have asked a federal court in Little Rock to block the executions, arguing the state’s rush to the death chamber was unconstitutional and reckless. The U.S. judge has yet to issue a ruling on the broader case.
The state Supreme Court offered no comment in staying Ward’s execution. His lawyers had argued he was schizophrenic and the court should take that into consideration before any final decision on his execution.
“He deserves a day in court for that, but in Arkansas the rules do not permit that,” Scott Braden, a lawyer with the Arkansas Federal Defender Office, said after the stay was granted.
The attorney general was evaluating how to proceed in Ward’s case, a spokesman said in a statement.
Arkansas uses potassium chloride in combination with vecuronium bromide and midazolam. The latter drug is intended to render the inmate unconscious before the other two chemicals are administered to paralyse the lungs and stop the heart.
Governor Asa Hutchinson has said the state must act quickly because the efficacy date for midazolam expires at the end of the month.
But Judge Wendell Griffen, an outspoken opponent of capital punishment, issued an order blocking the state from using a second drug, vecuronium bromide, after a petition from its maker, McKesson Medical-Surgical Inc.
The company said the Arkansas prison system failed to return a supply of the drug when it learned the state intended to use it for executions, a violation of an understanding between the two, according to McKesson.
“As a public opponent of capital punishment, Judge Griffen should have recused himself from this case,” said Judd Deere, spokesman for the attorney general.
Two other drug makers on Thursday asked a federal court to block Arkansas from using their drugs for upcoming executions, claiming that doing so would violate contractual controls and create a public health risk, court documents showed.
The companies did not disclose which of their drugs Arkansas will use during the executions.
(Additional reporting by Brendan O’Brien in Milwaukee and Jon Herskovitz in Austin, Texas; Writing by Frank McGurty; Editing by Cynthia Osterman and Bill Trott)