Ark. Death-Row Inmates Race to Delay Executions

LITTLE ROCK, Ark. (CN) – Lawyers for seven Arkansas inmates set to be executed by lethal injection next week argued in federal court that the state’s hurried schedule and execution protocol amounts to cruel and unusual punishment, in a bid to halt what they call “mass executions.”

Gov. Asa Hutchinson set an aggressive execution schedule that calls for seven inmates to be put to death in a 10-day span between April 17 and 27, some in pairs.

A federal judge last week ruled the eighth condemned inmate on the list, 40-year-old Jason McGehee, is entitled to a 30-day comment period and cannot be executed after the Arkansas Parole Board recommended that his request for clemency be granted.

On Monday, the parole board announced that the clemency request of convicted killer Jack Jones Jr. was without merit. Jones’ request was the final bid for clemency in the group; only McGehee’s request was granted out of six prisoners who filed requests.

Lawyers for the seven death-row inmates say the rushed execution schedule increases the risk of error and denies their clients access to counsel and the courts. The hearing in U.S. District Judge Kristine Baker’s Little Rock courtroom started Monday and is expected to continue throughout the week. Baker, an Obama appointee, issued the 2014 opinion finding Arkansas’ gay marriage ban unconstitutional.

“This compressed time schedule poses an unnecessary and objectively intolerable risk of substantial harm that is sure or very likely to occur,” according to arguments filed ahead of the hearing. “The compressed schedule is also contrary to evolving standards of human decency.”

The inmates’ federal complaint claims that the state’s lethal injection protocol “carries objectively intolerable risks” for the executions and stresses that the sedative midazolam has been used before in multiple botched executions.

Arkansas has not executed a prisoner since November 2005 and has not carried out a dual execution since 1999. Nobody currently working at the Arkansas Department of Corrections has performed an execution using midazolam, the prisoners’ attorneys claim.

Hutchinson scheduled the executions to take place before the state’s supply of the drug expires at the end of April.

Attorneys for the state argue that Arkansas does not currently have a source to purchase more of the drug from. They say a temporary stay “would effectively commute these prisoners’ death sentences.”

“The victims and their families have been waiting for justice for decades while the prisoners have split their claims and bounced around from court to court and forum to forum in a deliberate effort to obstruct the state’s efforts in carrying out their lawfully-imposed sentences,” according to legal filings.

Attorneys for the state further argue, “Their guilt is beyond dispute, and Arkansas is entitled to carry out their lawful sentences without further, unwarranted delay.”

On Tuesday, American Bar Association President Linda A. Klein wrote that she was “troubled” by the accelerated schedule, in a letter to the governor asking him to delay the executions.

“Because neither Arkansas decision-makers nor defense counsel currently have adequate time to ensure that these executions are carried out with due process of law, we simply ask that you modify the current execution schedule to allow for adequate time between executions,” Klein wrote in the letter.

Klein noted in the letter that the ABA does not take a position on the issue of the death penalty, but that the organization has long-standing policy supporting sufficient procedural safeguards to decrease the risks of injustice in death penalty cases.

The seven inmates scheduled for execution beginning on Monday if the state’s plan holds up are Bruce Ward, Don Davis, Stacey Johnson, Ledell Lee, Jack Jones, Marcel Williams and Kenneth Williams.

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