Ark.'s highest court keeps executions on hold, for now

State Supreme Court found that lower-court judge overstepped by halting executions, but then granted its own stay

By Claudia Lauer
Associated Press

LITTLE ROCK, Ark. — The Arkansas Supreme Court ruled Tuesday that a lower-court judge overstepped his jurisdiction by halting the executions of eight death row inmates. But the high court immediately granted its own stay to give the inmates time to challenge a new state law that bars Arkansas from disclosing its execution-drug supplier.

The justices sided with the state in agreeing to toss this month's order by Pulaski County Circuit Judge Wendell Griffen. Still, Attorney General Leslie Rutledge said she was disappointed that the executions, the first of which was scheduled for this week, remained on hold.

"While the Supreme Court's decision is not about the merits of the case, it is unfortunate that this further delays justice for the victims. I will continue to defend Arkansas's lethal injection statute and fight for the victims and their grieving families," Rutledge wrote in a statement Tuesday.

The high court also refused to order Griffen to schedule an earlier hearing in the case. He set the next hearing for March, just months before one of the state's execution drugs is set to expire. The attorney general's office had asked for a faster timetable, arguing that defense attorneys were trying to delay the case until the drug was no longer usable.

The prisoners are challenging the constitutionality of the state's new secrecy law, saying they need information about where and how the state's execution drugs were made to determine whether they will lead to cruel and unusual punishment. They also argue that the law violates a settlement in an earlier lawsuit that guaranteed inmates would be given the information, but the state has said the agreement was not a binding contract.

The inmates also are challenging Arkansas' three-drug execution protocol, focusing on the use of the drug midazolam. The sedative was implicated after inmates gasped and groaned during longer-than-expected executions in Oklahoma, Ohio and Arizona.

"We realize there is a lot of litigation yet lying in front of us. But we feel the decision of the Supreme Court was the appropriate decision in this case," said Jeff Rosenzweig, an attorney for the inmates. "The state made a binding commitment to provide us with this information and we are entitled to this information."

He also noted ongoing problems in Oklahoma, which has a similar secrecy law. Executions also are on hold there as the state investigates why prison officials used the wrong drug in a January execution and nearly did so last month.

"I think people saw what happened in Oklahoma, and the people of Arkansas do not want that to happen here," Rosenzweig said.

Earlier on Tuesday, the Arkansas Parole Board recommended that Gov. Asa Hutchinson deny the clemency request by one of the eight inmates, Stacey Eugene Johnson, who has asked the governor to commute his sentence to life without parole. Hutchinson didn't immediately make a decision.

Johnson was convicted of killing Carol Heath, who was beaten and strangled, and her throat slit, while her two young children were home. Her daughter, who was six when her mother was killed, testified during Johnson's second trial, but defense attorneys say they were wrongly denied access to the child's mental records before she was allowed to testify.

The daughter, Ashley Heath, asked the parole board during a hearing last week to grant the clemency request, saying she didn't believe in the death penalty and that it would end her family's constant worry about the next appeal or hearing. Other relatives disagreed.

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