LITTLE ROCK, Ark. (CN) – Two legal rulings Wednesday dealt yet another blow to Arkansas’ aggressive plan to execute eight inmates before a key lethal injection drug expires at the end of April.
Pulaski County Judge Alice Gray granted a request by McKesson Medical-Surgical Inc. for a temporary restraining order to stop the state from executing anyone using vecuronium bromide in its lethal injection protocol.
The medical supply company said in a Tuesday lawsuit that the Arkansas Department of Correction had illegally obtained 10 boxes of the drug and that using it in executions would damage the company’s reputation.
Just before that ruling, the Arkansas Supreme Court granted a stay of execution to Stacey Johnson, finding he has the right to prove his innocence with additional DNA testing.
Johnson is on death row for the murder of Carol Heath, a mother of two, who was beaten, strangled, and had her throat slit while her children were at home.
Johnson, 47, was one of two inmates to be put to death Thursday in what the state hoped would be its first execution since 2005.
Another inmate, Ledell Lee, has legal challenges pending, including a similar request for DNA testing. Lee was sentenced to death in 1995 for the beating and strangling death of a 26-year-old woman during a robbery.
“As we argued in our brief, there is a significant amount of DNA evidence that has never been tested which could exonerate Mr. Lee and identify the real perpetrator of the crime,” said Nina Morrison, one of Lee’s attorneys with the Innocence Project.
Arkansas Attorney General Leslie Rutledge said the state supreme court ruling was “without legal explanation” and that she was evaluating her options.
“The Arkansas Supreme Court in 2004 unanimously rejected an identical argument brought by inmate Stacey Johnson, but today, by a vote of four to three, the court has without legal explanation blocked the execution of an individual sentenced by two different juries,” Rutledge said. “I know that this is disappointing and difficult for Carol Heath’s family and her two children who were home at the time of the murder.”
Arkansas planned to begin an 11-day execution spree of eight men by the end of April, when its supply of the sedative midazolam expires, but state and federal rulings created roadblocks that unraveled the state’s plan.
Republican Gov. Asa Hutchison, who set the execution schedule – unheard of in the modern history of capital punishment – said he was surprised and disappointed by the latest rulings.
“When I set the dates, I knew there could be delays in one or more of the cases, but I expected the courts to allow the juries’ sentences to be carried out since each case had been reviewed multiple times by the Arkansas Supreme Court, which affirmed the guilt of each,” Hutchinson said.