Arkansas

Arkansas

Arkansas Prisoners, Asserting Their Innocence, File Requests for DNA Testing

Two Arkansas death-row prisoners who are scheduled be executed on April 20 have asked the Arkansas courts to stay their executions to permit DNA testing in their cases. Stacey Johnson (pictured, l.) and Ledell Lee (pictured, r.) both say they did not commit the crimes for which they were sentenced to death, and both say that DNA testing methods not available at the time of their trials could prove their innocence. Stacey Johnson was convicted of the 1993 rape and murder of Carol Jean Heath. His conviction rested largely on testimony from the victim's 6-year-old daughter, but records obtained by the defense after the trial indicate that the girl told her therapist that she had not seen anything and was being pressured by her family to identify Johnson. Technology available at the time of Johnson's trial was not sensitive enough to provide DNA results from the sexual assault evidence collected from the victim's body, but newer methods may be able to rule out Johnson and even provide a match to an alternative suspect. At the trial, it was revealed that the victim's boyfriend had abused his former wife for four years, requiring her to obtain emergency custody of her children. It was also revealed that his abuse of his ex-wife included biting her breasts. Significantly, bite marks were identified on the victim’s breasts in Johnson's case. Bryce Benjet of the Innocence Project, which filed Johnson's request, said, "This is not some sort of last-minute, hail mary pass. Johnson asked for DNA testing in earlier appeals, but those requests were denied by State and federal courts. There have been revolutionary advancements in DNA testing since this case was initially investigated which could tell once and for all who actually committed this crime." In a separate filing, Ledell Lee sought new DNA testing of hair and blood evidence, neither of which provided conclusive results using 1995 techniques. Despite a bloody crime scene, no physical evidence directly implicated Lee in the murder. No fingerprint evidence from the scene matched Lee and no DNA evidence was presented to the jury. A state’s expert witness, however, testified at trial that he had found "Negroid head hair" at the scene and the state said there were small spots of blood on Lee's shoes. Lee's lawyers argue that "probative biological evidence currently in the custodian control of the state may now be able to provide—through the use of modern, cutting edge DNA testing technology—confirmation of the veracity of Mr. Lee’s innocence claim." Both defendants' requests have been denied by county judges, and have been appealed to the Arkansas Supreme Court. [UPDATE: The Arkansas Supreme Court issued a stay of execution for Stacey Johnson on the DNA issue, but denied Ledell Lee's motion for a stay. Arkansas executed Lee on April 20.]

State and Federal Courts Grant Stays, Preliminary Injunctions Blocking 8 Arkansas Executions

In legal challenges filed separately by Arkansas death-row prisoners and a company involved in the distribution of pharmaceuticals, the Arkansas state and federal courts issued preliminary injunctions putting on hold the state's plan to carry out an unprecedented eight executions in the span of eleven days. After a four-day evidentiary hearing that ended late in the evening on Thursday, April 13, the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Arkansas issued a preliminary injunction barring Arkansas from carrying out the eight scheduled executions with a three-drug cocktail of midazolam, vecuronium bromide, and potassium chloride. The District Court issued its opinion and order early Saturday, April 15, finding "a significant possibility” that the prisoners' challenge to the lethal injection protocol will succeed and that Arkansas' execution plan denies the prisoners meaningful access to counsel and to the courts during the course of the executions themselves. In granting the preliminary injunction, Judge Kristine G. Baker wrote, "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." The ruling came a week after the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit upheld a preliminary injunction granted by an Ohio federal district court barring that state from using midazolam in a three-drug execution process. Arkansas has appealed the decision to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit.

In another lawsuit filed in state court by McKesson, the company that distributed vecuronium bromide to the Arkansas Department of Corrections, an Arkansas circuit judge issued an order in the late afternoon on Friday, April 14, temporarily blocking the state from using the drug. McKesson had filed a complaint alleging that Arkansas misled them about the intended use of the drug and refused to return it even after being issued a refund. Arkansas appealed the court's order, but after the federal injunction was issued, McKesson asked the Arkansas Supreme Court to vacate the state-court order because it would not be necessary as long as the federal injunction is in place.

Two prisoners separately received individual stays of execution. The Arkansas Supreme Court stayed the execution of Bruce Ward, scheduled for April 17, to allow consideration of his claim that he is incompetent to be executed. A federal district court stayed the execution of Jason McGehee, scheduled for April 27, to comply with the required 30-day public comment period after the Arkansas Parole Board's 6-1 recommendation for clemency.  [UPDATE: The U.S. Court of Appeals for the 8th Circuit reversed the District Court's ruling staying the Arkansas executions based upon its use of midazolam and the U.S. Supreme Court declined to review the issue. The Arkansas Supreme Court lifted the temporary restraining order against the state's use of medicines obtained from the McKessen Corporation to carry out executions.]

Arkansas Parole Board Recommends Clemency for Jason McGehee

The Arkansas Parole Board voted 6-1 on April 5 to recommend clemency for Jason McGehee, one of the eight death-row prisoners scheduled to be executed in an unprecedented eleven-day period later this month. McGehee's clemency petition drew support from both the former Director of the Arkansas Department of Correction, Ray Hobbs, and the trial judge who presided in his case, Robert McCorkindale. Speaking on McGehee's behalf, Hobbs told the Board, "He has learned his lesson, and he still has value that can be given to others if his life is spared." McGehee's lawyer, assistant federal defender John C. Williams, said clemency was warranted for numerous reasons and "respectfully ask[ed] the Governor to accept the parole board’s recommendation and sentence Mr. McGehee to life without the possibility of parole instead of death." Williams emphasized that McGehee was only twenty years old when the murder occurred and had a "near-perfect" prison record. He said, "The parole board determined Mr. McGehee warrants clemency instead of death because of his exemplary behavior, his youth at the time of the crime, and also because his sentence is not proportional." Two of McGehee's co-defendants, whom his lawyers argued were at least as culpable as McGehee, had received lesser sentences. The Fair Punishment Project chronicled numerous mitigating factors that, because McGehee's lawyer at trial barely investigated the case, his jury never heard. This included evidence that McGehee had been diagnosed with bipolar disorder and that he had experienced severe abuse and neglect as a child that led him to use drugs and alcohol as early as sixth grade. The parole board has recommended against clemency for four of the other prisoners, despite issues in those cases that include seriously inadequate defense, histories of mental illness, and borderline intellectual disability. The board's recommendations are advisory, not binding, and Governor Asa Hutchinson makes the final decision whether or not to grant clemency. [UPDATE: The U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Arkansas has stayed McGehee's execution pending final action by Governor Asa Hutchinson on the Parole Board's clemency recommendation.]

Corrections Officials Warn Arkansas Leaders About Psychological Trauma From Unprecedented Execution Schedule

As Arkansas moves toward attempting to conduct an unprecedented eight executions in eleven days, former corrections officials from across the country are warning Arkansas Governor Asa Hutchinson of the psychological toll the compressed execution schedule could take on prison personnel. Dr. Allen Ault (pictured), former warden and corrections commissioner in Georgia who oversaw five executions in that state, said "[t]he rapid schedule will put an extraordinary burden on the men and women required by the state to carry out this most solemn act, and it will increase the risk of mistakes in the execution chamber — which could haunt them for the rest of their lives." Dr. Ault joined 22 other former corrections officers in sending a letter to Governor Hutchinson, urging him to "reconsider the pace of the planned executions to protect the professionals who will carry them out and to ensure that the procedures are legal and humane." They caution, "[a]s former corrections officials and administrators—some of whom have directly overseen executions—we believe that performing so many executions in so little time will impose extraordinary and unnecessary stress and trauma on the staff responsible [for] carrying out the executions." Frank Thompson, a former warden of prisons for the Arkansas Department of Corrections and superintendent of the Oregon State Penitentiary, spoke of the mental health problems he has witnessed in prison officials who participated in executions, saying, "There is absolutely no way to conduct a well-run execution without causing at least one person to lose a little bit of their humanity, or to start at least one person on the cumulative path to post-traumatic stress. So for Arkansas to do this eight times in 10 days, to me that is unimaginable – it is compounding the stress, laying traumatic experiences on top of each other.” Jerry Givens, who carried out 62 executions for the state of Virginia, said simply, "I just ask the governor a favor.... [J]ust have some heart for the officers that have this task that they want them to carry out. Think about their lives afterwards."

Arkansas Schedules Unprecedented Eight Executions in Ten-Day Period

Arkansas Governor Asa Hutchinson signed orders on February 27 for an unprecedented eight executions to be carried out over a period of ten days in April. The scheduled dates for the four sets of double executions are: April 17, Bruce Ward and Don Davis; April 20, Stacey Johnson and Ledell Lee; April 24, Jack Jones and Marcel Williams; and April 27, Kenneth Williams and Jason McGehee. Arkansas Attorney General Leslie Rutledge asked that the dates be set after the U.S. Supreme Court on February 21 declined to review a state court decision upholding Arkansas' lethal injection protocol. Because of drug shortages and challenges to its lethal injection procedures, the state has not carried out an execution since 2005. If all eight executions are performed, it will be the first time since 1997 that a state has executed eight people in one month, when Texas conducted eight executions in both May and June of that year. No other state has conducted as many as eight executions in a single month since executions resumed in the U.S. in 1977, and no state has carried out eight executions in ten days. Scheduling two or more executions on the same day is also unusual; states have executed two or three inmates on the same day just ten times in the last forty years, and no state has carried out more than one double execution in the same week. The hurried schedule appears to be an attempt to use the state's current supply of eight doses of midazolam, which will expire at the end of April. Arkansas does not currently have a supply of potassium chloride, the killing drug specified in its execution protocol, but believes it can obtain supplies of that drug prior to the scheduled execution dates. Attorneys for the eight death-row prisoners filed an amended challenge to Arkansas' lethal injection procedures in state court on February 25 and wrote a letter to the governor urging him to reconsider the lethal injection protocol. "We believe it would be a mistake for you to uncritically accept the Supreme Court's opinion as a license to use the current protocol," the attorneys said. "Not only would our clients suffer, but so would our state's image and moral standing in the eyes of the country and the world." No state has successfully executed two prisoners on the same day using midazolam. Oklahoma attempted to do so on April 29, 2014, but called off the second execution after the botched execution of Clayton Lockett earlier that night. The eight prisoners scheduled for execution make up 23% of Arkansas' current death row.

Pharmaceutical Companies Reiterate Opposition to Participating in Executions as States Scramble for Execution Drugs

Distribution restrictions put in place by major pharmaceutical companies in the United States against misuse of their medicines and export regulations instituted by the European Union have made it increasingly difficult for states to obtain supplies of drugs for use in executions. However, despite these restrictions, some states have obtained pharmaceutical products manufactured by these companies for use in lethal injections. The Influence reports that the Commonwealth of Virginia obtained lethal injection drugs produced by the pharmaceutical company Mylan--rocuronium bromide, which induces paralysis, and potassium chloride, which stops the heart--from a large North Carolina based drug wholesaler, Cardinal Health. Mylan wrote to the Virginia prisons seeking assurances that use of its medicines in the future would not be diverted to any "purpose inconsistent with their approved labeling and applicable standards of care." Recently, the Associated Press discovered that the supply of vecuronium bromide obtained by the Arkansas Department of Correction was produced by a subsidiary of Pfizer. Pfizer announced in May 2016 that it opposed the use of its products in executions, stating, "Pfizer makes its products to enhance and save the lives of the patients we serve. Consistent with these values, Pfizer strongly objects to the use of its products as lethal injections for capital punishment." While state secrecy practices leave it unclear from whom Arkansas obtained the restricted drug, Rachel Hooper, a spokesperson for Pfizer, said, "We have implemented a comprehensive strategy and enhanced restricted distribution protocols for a select group of products to help combat their unauthorized use for capital punishment. Pfizer is currently communicating with states to remind them of our policy." As pharmaceutical companies have made their drugs more difficult for states to use, prisons have turned to alternate sources. The Alabama Department of Corrections contacted about 30 compounding pharmacies in an effort to obtain lethal injection drugs, but all refused. Compounding pharmacist Donnie Calhoun said, "For me, as a healthcare professional, I want to help people live longer. The last thing I want to do is help someone die." A Virginia pharmacist who was contacted by the attorney general's office also refused, saying, "No one will do it." Virginia recently adopted a lethal injection secrecy statute that would conceal the identity of its drug supplier, joining many other death penalty states in shielding key information about executions from public scrutiny.

Arkansas Court Puts Lethal Injection Ruling on Hold, Blocking Executions Pending U.S. Supreme Court Review

On July 21, a divided Arkansas Supreme Court voted 4-3 to deny a request by state death row prisoners to reconsider its recent decision upholding Arkansas' lethal injection protocol and secrecy law, but in another 4-3 vote, the court issued an order staying the mandate, delaying the decision from taking effect until the U.S. Supreme Court has an opportunity to consider an appeal. The stay order prevents the state from setting new execution dates before the U.S. Supreme Court acts on the prisoners' appeal. The same three Arkansas justices who dissented from the court's initial lethal injection decision in June would have granted the rehearing requested by the death row prisoners. However, Arkansas Chief Justice Howard Brill joined the three dissenting justices in staying the ruling pending action by the U.S. Supreme Court on the lethal injection decision. Eight inmates have completed their standard appeals, and Governor Asa Hutchinson had indicated that he intended to set execution dates for those inmates as soon as possible. Executions were previously in doubt because the state's supply of the drug vecuronium bromide, used as a paralytic agent in the state's three-drug execution protocol, had expired. But Arkansas recently announced that it was able to obtain a new supply of the drug from an unnamed source. The state's supply of potassium chloride, the final drug used in executions to stop the prisoner's heart, expires on January 1, 2017. Because of the timeline for petitioning the U.S. Supreme Court, it is unlikely that Arkansas will be able to resume executions before its supply of that drug expires.   

Status of Arkansas Death Penalty Uncertain Following Expiration of Lethal Injection Drugs

Just days after a split Arkansas Supreme Court upheld the state's execution protocol, Arkansas' supply of vecuronium bromide—a paralytic agent used in the state's three-drug lethal injection protocol—expired, leaving the status of future executions unclear. At that time, Governor Asa Hutchinson said that he wanted the Department of Correction to obtain a new supply of the drug rather than change the state's method of execution. In 2015, the state spent $25,000 for lethal injection drugs and set eight execution dates. Death row prisoners challenged the state's execution protocol and secrecy law, which they say violated the settlement in a challenge to an earlier protocol. The new litigation, which raised critical questions about whether the new protocol might result in an unconstitutionally cruel and unusual execution, took nearly a year to resolve, ending just before the June 30 expiration date of the execution drugs. Because every major manufacturer of pharmaceuticals in the U.S. opposes the use of their products in executions, Governor Hutchinson said it is "unknown" whether Arkansas will be able to obtain a new supply of the drugs. He again expressed hesitation at the idea of changing the state's lethal injection protocol, saying, "You don't want to deviate from what's already been tested and approved[;] otherwise you're starting all over again." The Arkansas Department of Correction would not disclose what efforts it has made to obtain new execution drugs. The state last carried out an execution in 2005.  

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