ATLANTA — A federal judge on Saturday halted Arkansas’s plans for an extraordinary series of executions set to begin on Monday, adding to the legal chaos over what began as the state’s efforts to put eight convicted murderers to death in less than two weeks.
Although the Arkansas attorney general’s office immediately announced that it would appeal the ruling, Saturday’s preliminary injunction by Judge Kristine G. Baker of Federal District Court in Little Rock, Ark., threatened to unravel the state’s plan for its first executions since 2005.
The decision compounded the legal turmoil around the state’s execution schedule, which Gov. Asa Hutchinson set in February.
Rulings by other judges had already resulted in stays of execution for two prisoners, and on Friday, a Circuit Court judge in Pulaski County, Ark., issued a restraining order that barred the state from using its stock of one of its three execution drugs.
In a 101-page order on Saturday, Judge Baker embraced arguments by the eight prisoners whose executions had been scheduled, plus one other death row inmate, that Arkansas’s reliance on midazolam, a sedative, as an execution drug posed a risk to their constitutional rights.
“The threat of irreparable harm to the plaintiffs is significant: If midazolam does not adequately anesthetize plaintiffs, or if their executions are ‘botched,’ they will suffer severe pain before they die,” Judge Baker, an appointee of President Barack Obama, wrote. She added that the men had “shown a significant possibility that they will succeed on the merits of their method of execution claims based on midazolam.”
The drug is one of the world’s most popular and versatile sedatives, and at least six states have used it for executions since 2013. Less than two years ago, the United States Supreme Court upheld its use as an execution drug.
But the divided Supreme Court’s opinion in that case, Glossip v. Gross, did little to settle the controversy around midazolam, which was developed in the 1970s as an alternative to Valium and emerged only in recent years as an execution drug. After the Supreme Court’s 5-to-4 ruling, critics of the death penalty continued to argue that the drug lacked the power to render a prisoner sufficiently unconscious before executioners administered drugs that cause pain when stopping a person’s breathing and heartbeat.
The drug has been used for executions that mostly drew little outrage, but it was also part of a handful of executions that went awry. In 2014, for instance, midazolam was part of the drug protocol in Arizona when a man’s execution lasted nearly two hours; the state has since agreed not to use midazolam to carry out death sentences.
During a four-day hearing this month in her courtroom in Arkansas’s capital, Judge Baker heard the arguments about the drug that have become familiar across the country. Her ruling will be tested in the United States Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit, which sits in St. Louis and is among the nation’s most conservative appellate benches.
“It is unfortunate that a U.S. district judge has chosen to side with the convicted prisoners in one of their many last-minute attempts to delay justice,” said Judd Deere, a spokesman for the state attorney general. “This decision is significantly out of step with precedent from the Eighth Circuit and the U.S. Supreme Court.”
John C. Williams, a lawyer for some of the prisoners, welcomed the ruling, which he described as “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,” he said in a statement. “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.”
Source: The New York Times, Alan Blinder, April 15, 2017
Damien Echols Says He Is Proof Arkansas Sends ‘Innocent People to Death’
A man in black, tall and lean, appeared with a small entourage and runic tattoos snaking up his arms and neck. He was not a rock star, but a kind of Lazarus: Damien Echols was back in Arkansas.
In an instant, news cameras and gawkers flowed toward him. Mr. Echols, 42, is one of the so-called West Memphis Three, men freed from prison in August 2011 despite their convictions in a grisly child murder case. In the nearly six years since his release from Death Row, Mr. Echols had made just one brief return visit to Arkansas.
It is a place he tries to avoid. He still refers to it as the state that tried to kill him.
He lives in New York City now, and he struggled mightily with the idea of coming here at all. But soon, he, too, was at the lectern on Friday, after a clap on the shoulder from his friend, the actor Johnny Depp. Like the others, Mr. Echols implored Gov. Asa Hutchinson to abandon his plan to execute seven convicted murderers in a span of 10 days.
Over the next 24 hours, the drama would shift to the courts, with a federal judge issuing an injunction, and a Pulaski County Circuit Court issuing a ruling temporarily blocking the executions, which were to begin on Monday. The Arkansas Supreme Court also issued a stay of execution for one of the condemned men, Bruce Ward.
As of Saturday, much was in the hands of the appellate courts. If the state overcomes the legal challenges and schedules the six remaining executions before the end of the month, it would be a rate unprecedented in the modern history of the American death penalty.
Mr. Echols told the crowd at the Capitol that the matter was personal for him: The convicts were all men he knew. For 18 years, he had waited with them to die.
“I’ve seen them at their best; I’ve seen them at their worst,” he said. “I’ve seen them laugh, I’ve seen them cry. And strangely enough, it was these guys that they’re getting ready to execute — the ones that the local politicians will tell you are irredeemably evil; they can’t be saved or redeemed — these are the people who showed me more kindness, compassion and generosity than any of the good people that are trying to kill them ever did.”
The crush of state-sponsored killings has reignited a national debate over capital punishment at a time of confusing crosscurrents in the United States, with President Trump, who has expressed support for the death penalty, ascending to the White House even as executions fell to a 25-year low last year, and polls showing public support for it at its lowest level in decades.
To many, Mr. Echols’s celebrated release from Death Row in Arkansas in 2011 constitutes its own argument for abolishing capital punishment. In 1994, he and two friends were convicted, as teenagers, of murdering three young boys in West Memphis, Ark., only to be released, after nearly two decades, thanks in part to DNA evidence that raised questions about their case.
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Source: The New York Times, Richard Fausset, April 15, 2017
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