Arkansas's already compromised plan to execute eight men by the end of the month unraveled on Friday, with a judge blocking the use of a lethal injection drug and the state's highest court granting a stay to one of the first inmates who had been scheduled to die.
Pulaski County Circuit Judge Wendell Griffen issued a temporary restraining order blocking the state from using its supply of vecuronium bromide after a company said it had sold the drug to the state for medical purposes, not capital punishment. Griffen scheduled a hearing for Tuesday, the day after the first execution was due to take place.
Griffen's order effectively halts the executions, which had dropped to six after Friday's state Supreme Court order blocking one execution and a federal judge halting another last week, unless it's reversed or the state finds a new supply of the drug.
Arkansas, which has not executed an inmate since 2005 because of drug shortages and legal challenges, had initially planned to execute eight before the end of April, when its supply of midazolam expires. That plan, if carried out, would have marked the most inmates executed by a state in such a short period since the US Supreme Court reinstated the death penalty in 1976.
Attorney General Leslie Rutledge's office said she planned to file an emergency request with the state Supreme Court to overturn Griffen's order, saying Griffen shouldn't handle the case. Local media outlets had tweeted photos of Griffen at a demonstration held by execution opponents outside the Governor's Mansion earlier on Friday.
"As a public opponent of capital punishment, Judge Griffen should have recused himself from this case," Rutledge spokesman Judd Deere said.
The order came the same day justices issued a stay for Bruce Ward, who was scheduled to be put to death on Monday night for the 1989 death of a woman found strangled in the men's room of the Little Rock convenience store where she worked. Attorneys asked for the stay after a Jefferson County judge said she didn't have the authority to halt Ward's execution. Ward's attorneys have argued he is a diagnosed schizophrenic with no rational understanding of his impending execution.
"We are grateful that the Arkansas Supreme Court has issued a stay of execution for Bruce Ward so that they may consider the serious questions presented about his sanity," Scott Braden, an assistant federal public defender representing Ward, said in a statement.
US District Judge Kristine Baker is also considering the inmates' arguments that such a compressed schedule could lead to undue pain and suffering. Baker had not ruled by Friday evening.
Pharmaceutical firm McKesson said it had requested Arkansas return its supply of vecuronium bromide after the San Francisco-based company learned it would be used in executions. The firm said on Thursday night that the state had assured it would return the drug and the company had even issued a refund.
Under Arkansas's protocol, midazolam is used to sedate the inmate, vecuronium bromide then stops the inmate's breathing and potassium chloride stops the heart.
Judge Baker is also considering a request from two pharmaceutical companies that their products not be used for capital punishment. Fresenius Kabi USA and West-Ward Pharmaceuticals Corp filed a court brief on Thursday asking the court to prohibit Arkansas from using their drugs.
Arkansas's execution timeline drew condemnation from hundreds of death penalty opponents who rallied at the Capitol waving signs including a large banner that read: "We remember the victims ... But not with more killing." The rally was headlined by actor Johnny Depp and Damien Echols, who spent nearly 18 years on Arkansas's death row before he and two other men, known as the West Memphis Three, were freed in 2011 in a plea deal in which they maintained their innocence.
"I didn't want to come back, but when I heard about the conveyor belt of death that the politicians were trying to set in motion, I guess I knew I wouldn't be able to live with myself if I didn't come back and try to do something," said Echols, who now lives in New York.