Arkansas Sued by Inmates Set to Die in Pairs in April

LITTLE ROCK, Ark. (CN) – An Arkansas judge on Tuesday dismissed a lawsuit filed by a group of death-row inmates that challenged the state’s execution protocol, but two federal lawsuits filed this week seek to block their April executions as cruel and unusual punishment.

Pulaski County Circuit Judge Wendell Griffen ruled that he is bound by the Arkansas Supreme Court’s 2016 decision that allowed the state to proceed with lethal injections, in a 10-page order deeply critical of the high court’s ruling.

“It is more than troubling, and more than shameful,” Griffen wrote in Tuesday’s ruling. “It amounts to theft of the rights guaranteed by the Constitution of this state and the Constitution of the United States to a trial.”

The judge granted a motion by the state to dismiss the inmates’ lawsuit originally filed in 2015 that claimed the planned execution protocol would subject them to extreme pain and suffering.

“The Arkansas Supreme Court has decided, in a ruling that is both plain and troubling, that plaintiffs are not entitled to a trial on their contention that the three-drug protocol prescribed by defendants pursuant to Act 1096 will cause each of them severe pain and suffering. This court cannot entertain pleadings concerning those allegations. No other trial court can do so in Arkansas,” Griffen’s wrote.

The Arkansas Supreme Court’s decision overturned Griffen’s prior finding that state law prohibiting the disclosure of the state’s supplier of its lethal injection drugs was unconstitutional.

But the eight inmates, who are scheduled to be put to death in pairs in the span of just 10 days next month, could find reprieve in two new lawsuits filed in federal court this week.

In Monday’s lawsuit, the death-row prisoners argued that the state’s use of the sedative midazolam, and the hurried execution schedule, amount to cruel and unusual punishment.

Tuesday’s lawsuit claims due-process violations, arguing that the execution schedule, set by Gov. Asa Hutchinson for between April 17 and 27, does not allow the state enough time to comply with its own laws and regulations over the clemency process.

“The proposed pace of executions makes the meaningful clemency review required by statute and Arkansas’ own administrative code impossible,” the inmates say in their March 28 complaint.

The Arkansas Parole Board has already recommended that the governor reject three clemency requests this week. On Wednesday, the board told Hutchinson there was no merit to Marcel Williams’ request.

Two remaining clemency requests are set to be heard Friday. The other three inmates did not apply for clemency.

The claims raised in the clemency petitions include questions of innocence, mental illness, rehabilitation and severe childhood abuse.

In both federal lawsuits, the inmates asked for a stay of their executions. Hutchinson and Arkansas Department of Correction Director Wendy Kelley are named as defendants.

Hutchinson said he scheduled the executions to take place before the state’s supply of midazolam expires at the end of April, according to the March 27 lawsuit.

Arkansas has not carried out an execution in 11 years as legal challenges and trouble acquiring the drugs halted the sentences.

The Arkansas inmates scheduled for execution next month are Bruce Ward, Don Davis, Stacey Johnson, Ledell Lee, Jack Jones, Marcel Williams, Kenneth Williams and Jason McGehee.

Their most recent lawsuits were filed by Little Rock attorneys Scott W. Braden, Jeff Rosenzweig and Lee Short.

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