Arkansas Execution Fight Moves to Eighth Circuit

(CN) – A group of death-row inmates in Arkansas who were granted a last-minute reprieve over the weekend asked the Eighth Circuit on Monday to keep that order in place by rejecting the state’s appeal.

Arkansas was set to begin putting seven prisoners to death on Monday in a plan unheard of in the modern history of capital punishment that called for some prisoners to be executed in pairs in an 11-day span.

U.S. District Judge Kristin Baker granted the inmates request for a stay of execution in a 101-page order Saturday, finding the state’s execution protocol would unreasonably restrict the inmates’ rights to counsel and access to the courts. The judge rejected their claims that the aggressive schedule did not leave enough time between executions.

On Monday, the inmates filed court documents asking the Eight Circuit to throw out Arkansas’ request to overturn Baker’s order. Lawyers for the inmates also urged the St. Louis-based appeals court to review their claims that the rushed execution schedule “violates the evolving standards of decency that define the bounds of the Eighth Amendment.”

“Plaintiffs ask the court to reject the state’s request for a rushed analysis of this complex record and instead give calm consideration to these grave issues after full briefing and argument,” lawyers for the prisoners argued in a 51-page brief.

Arkansas Attorney General Leslie Rutledge filed an appeal to Baker’s order over the weekend, after the judge’s four-day hearing in Little Rock ended in a blow to the state’s plan to execute seven prisoners before its supply of the drug midazolam expires at the end of the month.

The Arkansas Supreme Court on Monday rejected another appeal filed by the attorney general’s office Saturday asking it to reconsider Bruce Ward’s stay of execution. The state’s highest court did not offer a reason for the Friday evening stay, but indicated that three justices would have denied the request.

Ward was one of two inmates set to be executed Monday.

Rutledge said on Saturday that her office would continue to respond to all legal challenges, but attorneys for the state argued in court documents that a federal court’s stay “would effectively commute these prisoners’ death sentences.

John C. Williams, assistant federal public defender and attorney for some of the death-row prisoners, said Baker’s ruling “is legally sound and reasonable.”

“The unnecessarily compressed execution schedule using the risky drug midazolam denies prisoners their right to be free from the risk of torture,” Williams said. “We are calling on state officials to accept the federal court’s decision, cancel the frantic execution schedule, and propose a legal and humane method to carry out its executions.”

The state’s execution plan has sparked protests around the state and prompted widespread criticism nationwide, including from a group of over two dozen former corrections officials, over 200 faith leaders in Arkansas and dozens of Evangelical leaders from across the country.

The president of the American Bar Association wrote that she was “troubled” by the accelerated schedule in a letter to the governor asking him to delay the executions, and organizations like the National Hispanic Caucus of State Legislators and Amnesty International, along with best-selling author and Arkansas native John Grisham, have all come out against the state’s plan.

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