Death penalty battle heats up in Arkansas; Sanders calls for end to executions

UPDATE 4 — 4/21: Following an Arkansas Supreme Court ruling which overturned a circuit judge’s injunction on all state executions, death row inmate Ledell Lee was put to death by lethal injection at 11:44 p.m. CDT Thursday. 

Lee, convicted of murder in 1995, is the first prisoner to be executed in the Natural State since 2005.


UPDATE 3 — 4/20: A Pulaski County circuit court judge has issued a ruling delaying all scheduled executions in Arkansas after deeming the state illegally purchased a lethal injection drug from a San Francisco-based medical company. 

NPR reported Arkansas state officials told McKesson Corp. that the vecuronium bromide would only be used in prison health facilities and not to execute death row inmates.

Arkansas’ state Attorney General’s office will be appeal Judge Alice Gray’s ruling, according to AP.


UPDATE 2 — 6:38 p.m. EDT: The 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals has overturned a previous decision by a lower federal court judge that halted executions in Arkansas on grounds the practice violates the Eight Amendment’s language barring “cruel and unusual punishments”.

“Under our view of the correct legal standard, we cannot agree with the district court that the prisoners have demonstrated a significant possibility of establishing a known and available alternative that would significantly reduce a substantial risk of severe pain,” the appeals court ruling read.


UPDATE — 2:50 p.m. EDT: Despite losing an appeal at the state Supreme Court level upholding the judicial order staying a scheduled execution, NBC News is reporting the Arkansas Department of Corrections is prepared to go forward with plans to put one Bruce Ward to death Monday evening. 

In response to a second ruling by a district court judge, who issued a temporary injunction against all state executions, the Arkansas state attorney general appealed to the 8th Circuit Court of Appeals with a decision due later Monday.



Two court decisions issued on Friday and Saturday blocked the state of Arkansas from carrying out a string executions, setting up separate battles over the constitutionality of the practice and  whether the state obtained a drug used in executions legally.

Arkansas had planned on eight executions over an 11-day period beginning on Monday.  All eight inmates are convicted murderers.

On Friday, an Arkansas state judge blocked the state from using vecuronium bromide, a drug commonly used in executions as a general anesthesia.  Mixed with potassium chloride and midazolam, it forms a cocktail to induce unconsciousness and stop the heart.

Arkansas Circuit Court Judge Wendell Griffen issued an order forbidding the use of vecuronium bromide following an appeal from manufacturer McKesson Medical-Surgical Inc., which opposes its use in executions.

One day following, U.S. District Judge Kristine Baker wrote a 101-page ruling finding the inmates facing execution would be denied legal rights over adequate counsel.  She wrote:

“There is a significant possibility that plaintiffs will succeed on the merits of their Eighth Amendment challenge to Arkansas’s lethal injection protocol.”

The inmates had filed suit, alleging only one lawyer present at execution denied their right to counsel.

In the midst of the legal fight, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), a longtime opponent of the death penalty, expressed his disapproval of Arkansas’ policy and called for an end of the death penalty.


[AP] [Arkansas Online] [The Hill] [NPR] [CNN] [Photo courtesy AP via Tampa Bay Times]