Arkansas prepared to execute two inmates on Thursday despite court rulings that have stymied the U.S. state's plan to conduct multiple lethal injections before one of the drugs it uses expires at the end of April.
The state was seeking last-minute reversals of rulings blocking it from executing convicted murderers Stacey Johnson and Ledell Lee. Preparations for the lethal injections, scheduled for Thursday night at 7 p.m. and 8:15 p.m. local time were underway, prisons spokesman Solomon Graves said.
"They will continue pending the outcome of appeals at both the state and federal levels," Graves said in an email.
Arkansas, which has not conducted an execution in 12 years, at one point had planned to execute eight inmates in 11 days, the most of any state in as short a period since the U.S. Supreme Court reinstated the death penalty in 1976.
Republican Gov. Asa Hutchinson had set that schedule because one of the three drugs used in Arkansas executions, the sedative midazolam, expires at the end of April.
That plan prompted what death penalty experts have said was an unprecedented array of legal filings, and raised questions about U.S. death chamber protocols and lethal injection drug mixes.
On Wednesday, a state circuit judge issued a temporary restraining order blocking the use of one of the drugs Arkansas acquired for lethal injections. The judge ruled on a lawsuit by U.S. pharmaceutical wholesaler McKesson Medical-Surgical Inc which accused the state of obtaining the muscle relaxant vecuronium bromide under false pretences.
The company, a unit of McKesson Corp., said it would not have sold the drug to the Arkansas prison system had it known it would be used in executions. It is demanding the drug be returned or confiscated.
Arkansas officials have said they cannot obtain the drug from another source. Should McKesson prevail, all pending executions would be blocked, the state said in court papers.
A spokesman for state Attorney General Leslie Rutledge, a Republican, said she would appeal that ruling.
Also on Wednesday, the Arkansas Supreme Court issued a stay for Johnson, who for years has claimed he is innocent and is seeking DNA testing his lawyers say will clear him of the 1993 murder and sexual assault of Carol Heath.
Lee was convicted and sentenced to death for beating Debra Reese to death with a tire iron in 1993.
Even if Arkansas wins reversals at the state level, the eight inmates who were scheduled to be put to death this month have three requests for reprieves at the U.S. Supreme Court.
The executions of inmates Bruce Ward and Don Davis, which had been slated for Monday, were called off after court-ordered halts over mental competency issues.