Judge blocks Arkansas from using execution drug

Arkansas has not put an inmate to death since 2005. A third execution, originally scheduled for next week, was previously halted by a federal judge after a parole board said it would recommend changing that inmate's sentence to life in prison. In this Monday evening, April 17, 2017 photo, the sun sets behind clouds over an Arkansas State Police command post outside the Varner Unit of the Arkansas Department of Correction. Anti-death penalty supporters Abraham Bonowitz, left, and Randy Gardner wait near their taped off "protest corral" outside the Varner Unit late Monday, April 17, 2017 near Varner, Ark. The Innocence Project filed the appeal along with Johnson's attorney. The court also barred an anti-death penalty circuit judge from participation in cases or laws involving capital punishment, and lifted his order blocking the state from using a lethal injection drug in the planned executions.

Circuit Judge Alice Gray has stopped the state's use of vecuronium bromide until she can determine the rightful owner. The drug is one of three used in Arkansas' lethal injection protocol.

The ruling came moments after the Arkansas Supreme Court granted a stay to one of two men scheduled for execution Thursday night. The two sides have been waging battles in state and federal courts over these lethal injections.

Arkansas' attempt to carry out its first executions in almost 12 years has been thwarted by a state Supreme Court that's been the focus of campaigns by conservative groups to reshape the judiciary.

The state is trying to execute eight prisoners in 11 days before its supply of midazolam, the first lethal injection drug, expires by month's end. Another ruling Wednesday could scuttle the entire schedule.

The legal challenge is one of several filed by the inmates. Under that timeline, the state would be unable to execute Ward and Davis before its supply of midazolam expires April 30. Three of those inmates have since received stays.

The state also has had to face criticism from drug companies unhappy that their products may be used in executions. McKesson Corp. says the state obtained the drug under false pretenses and that it wants nothing to do with executions. The drug, which paralyzes the prisoner, is the second step in the state's three-drug cocktail for the procedure. He said he didn't keep records of the texts, but a McKesson representative did.

Tim Jenkins of McKesson says Griffin never told him the drug would be used for executions. The filing says: "As is oft said, justice delayed is justice denied".

Arkansas inmates set for a series of executions before the end of the month have filed a new request for stays. In that order, the state Supreme Court did not elaborate on its reasoning.

Two executions are set for Thursday, followed by another double execution Monday and a single execution April 27. A double execution planned for earlier this week was halted by the state Supreme Court.

The other two justices who favored stopping the executions were Robin Wynne, who was touted as tough on child predators when he was elected in 2014, and Josephine Linker Hart, who ran as a "no-nonsense judge" in 2012. Another state judge granted such an order last week, but he was quickly criticized by Rutledge and others for attending a death-penalty protest the same day and was removed from the case by the Arkansas Supreme Court, which vacated his order.

This story has been corrected to show that the inmate's name is Ledell Lee, not Lendell Lee.

The Associated Press reported that "Judd Deere, a spokesman for Arkansas Attorney General Leslie Rutledge, said the state will appeal that ruling".

As of now both Stacey Johnson and Ledell Lee will remain in holding cells next to the death chamber in Cummins Unit.

It's unclear whether the new execution obstacles would have any political fallout for the court. Johnson's attorneys requested additional DNA testing on evidence that they say could prove his innocence in the 1993 rape and killing of Carol Heath.

The court hasn't explained its reasoning in any of its one-page stay-of-execution orders for the three inmates.

The inmates are fighting their executions on multiple legal fronts, but there are now no stays in place for five who are set to die this month as the state rushes to beat an expiration date for one of its lethal drugs.

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