(CN) – The U.S. Supreme Court late Monday blocked Arkansas from executing convicted murderer Don Davis, one of at least six inmates the state hoped to put to death before its supply of a key lethal injection drug expires at the end of this month.
Arkansas was set to begin an 11-day execution spree of seven prisoners on Monday, but state and federal rulings created roadblocks that put the state’s aggressive plan in jeopardy.
In a one-paragraph order released in the early morning hours Tuesday, the nation’s highest court declined to lift Davis’ stay of execution granted by the Arkansas Supreme Court.
Davis, convicted in a 1992 murder, would have been the first inmate in the state to be executed since 2005. He had been served what was to be his last meal, despite the state Supreme Court’s hold on his execution.
The Supreme Court’s order sparing the 54-year-old came after a head-spinning day of legal rulings in which the Eighth Circuit reversed U.S. District Judge Kristin Baker’s decision to grant a temporary injunction to nine inmates on Arkansas death row.
Gov. Asa Hutchinson expressed disappointment in the Supreme Court ruling in a statement Monday, but promised to continue to seek justice for the victims’ families.
“While this has been an exhausting day for all involved, tomorrow we will continue to fight back on last-minute appeals and efforts to block justice for the victims’ families,” he said.
Hutchinson set the execution schedule – unheard of in the modern history of capital punishment – before the state’s supply of the sedative midazolam expires at the end of the month.
Attorney General Leslie Rutledge said the Supreme Court’s decision was “heartbreaking” but that her office will continue to respond to all legal challenges brought by the death row prisoners.
“Ultimately, the U.S. Supreme Court has the final say and has decided not to lift the stay at this time,” she said. “There are five scheduled executions remaining with nothing preventing them from occurring, but I will continue to respond to any and all legal challenges brought by the prisoners.”
Rutledge added, “The families have waited far too long to see justice, and I will continue to make that a priority.”
The Arkansas Supreme Court had rejected an effort from Rutledge’s office to overturn the stay of Bruce Ward, another inmate who was also scheduled to die Monday. Ward was convicted in the 1989 death of a Little Rock convenience store clerk.
Scott Braden, an attorney with the Arkansas Federal Defender Office who represents both Davis and Ward, said his clients suffer from severe mental illness and “were denied independent mental health experts to help their defense attorneys investigate, understand, and present these critical mental health issues to the jury.”
Braden said executing either inmate would be “profoundly arbitrary and unjust.” Davis has organic brain damage and is intellectually disabled, while Ward has “life-long schizophrenia,” the attorney said.
Arkansas had originally scheduled eight inmates to be executed in pairs this month before its supply of midazolam expired.
Its plan began to unravel two weeks ago, when a federal judge blocked the death sentence of 40-year-old Jason McGehee. The Arkansas Parole Board recommended that Gov. Asa Hutchinson grant his request for clemency, initiating a 30-day comment period that meant he could not be executed in April.