Arkansas

Arkansas

Arkansas Supreme Court Strikes Down State's Death-Penalty Mental Competency Law

A divided Arkansas Supreme Court has struck down the state’s death-penalty mental competency law, holding that statutory provisions giving the state’s prison director exclusive authority to determine a death-row prisoner’s competency to be executed violate due process. The 4-3 rulings on November 1, 2018 were a victory for two mentally ill death-row prisoners, Bruce Ward (pictured, left) and Jack Greene (pictured, right), who had come within days of execution in 2017. The appeals court directed the Arkansas trial courts to conduct hearings to determine the men’s mental status and their competency to be executed.

Ward, who has been diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia, was scheduled to be executed on Monday, April 17, 2017. A Pulaski County trial court had denied his motion for a hearing to determine his competency to be executed, saying it had no legal authority to rule on the issue. The state supreme court stayed Ward's execution on April 14 to decide whether counsel should be permitted to litigate Ward’s competency to be executed. Greene suffers from psychotic delusions and, according to court pleadings, believes that his attorneys and prison officials are conspiring to torture him. His delusions include that “his spinal cord has been removed and his central nervous system has been destroyed,” in response to which, his lawyers say, Greene “constantly twist[s] his body and stuff[s] his ear and nose with toilet paper to cope with the pain.” Arkansas had scheduled his execution for November 9, but the Arkansas Supreme Court granted a stay on November 7 to resolve whether the state's mechanism to determine competency was constitutional.

The court’s two rulings determined that Arkansas’s competency law violated the two prisoners’ rights to due process under both the United States and Arkansas constitutions. The statute, Chief Justice John Kemp wrote, failed to “provide for an evidentiary hearing that comports with the fundamental principles of due process,” as set forth in the U.S. Supreme Court’s competency decisions in Ford v. Wainwright and Panetti v. Quarterman. John C. Williams, a federal public defender representing the inmates, told Associated Press that the defense was “pleased the court held the statute unconstitutional, and we look forward to litigating our clients’ competence.”

Ethics Board Files Charges Against Arkansas Supreme Court Justices for Treatment of Anti-Death-Penalty Judge

An Arkansas ethics board has filed disciplinary charges against six members of the Arkansas Supreme Court alleging that they violated the canons of judicial ethics in removing a trial judge from all death-penalty cases as a result of the judge's participation in an anti-death-penalty vigil. On September 20, 2018, the Arkansas Judicial Discipline and Disability Commission announced that it had filed formal disciplinary charges against state Supreme Court Chief Justice John Dan Kemp and Justices Robin Wynne, Courtney Goodson, Jo Hart, Karen Baker, and Rhonda Wood, after an investigatory panel of the commission found probable cause that the Justices had "acted arbitrarily and capriciously" in removing Pulaski County Circuit Judge Wendell Griffen from drug distributor McKesson Medical-Surgical, Inc.'s case against Arkansas for alleged misconduct in obtaining execution drugs and from all pending cases involving the death penalty or the state's execution protocol. The panel found that the justices had given Judge Griffen no meaningful opportunity to respond to a motion filed by the state attorney general's office that sought to remove him from the McKesson lawsuit. Prosecutors had complained that Griffen, who is also a Baptist minister, had committed misconduct by strapping himself to a mock gurney in front of the Governor's mansion as part of an April 14, 2017 Good Friday anti-death-penalty vigil and protest. After the close of business that day, the attorney general's office notified the state supreme court—but not Judge Griffen—that it intended to seek his disqualification from presiding over the McKesson case. On Saturday, April 15, the court set a 3:00 p.m. deadline that day to respond to the attorney general's petition, but failed to notify Judge Griffen of its order. That same evening, the supreme court clerk's office sent an email to Griffen's chambers finally notifying him of the proceedings and giving him until 9:00 a.m. Monday, April 17 to respond. However, the panel wrote: "It cannot be reasonably assumed that Judge Griffen would receive the email at his chambers address on a weekend" and that he "could not have reasonably been expected to have effectuated a meaningful response to the state's petition to remove him from the McKesson case." Even more seriously, the panel found that Griffen "was never given notice of, and the opportunity to be heard on, the Supreme Court's ultimate action—[his removal] from all death penalty and execution protocol cases pending and in the future." None of the parties to the McKesson litigation "had even raised or argued the issue of Judge Griffen's blanket disqualification," the panel said, only disqualification from the McKesson case. Nonetheless, the panel wrote, the justices went beyond the requested remedy and "acted sua sponte to remove judicial duties from Judge Griffen which he would otherwise have been legally obligated to discharge regarding other death penalty and execution protocol cases." The panel concluded, "where disciplinary action is taken against another judge without sufficient notice to that judge and goes beyond the relief requested by any party, we believe that such arbitrary and capricious conduct could form the basis for disciplinary action by the Commission of the judge or judges ordering the action taken against another judge." The ethics panel did not find probable cause to believe that the justices had any improper communications with the attorney general's office in removing Griffen from the death-penalty cases and dismissed those allegations against the justices.

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Arkansas Prisons Suspend Search for Execution Drugs, Ask For Even Broader Drug Secrecy Law

Unable to legitimately purchase lethal-injection drugs or carry out executions without revealing who manufactured its drugs, Arkansas has suspended efforts to obtain a new supply of execution drugs until state law is amended to keep secret the identity of the drug manufacturers. The Arkansas Department of Corrections confirmed on July 17, 2018 that it had halted its search for execution drugs earlier this year following a November 2017 Arkansas Supreme Court decision requiring the state to disclose portions of the pharmaceutical drug and packaging labels for the drugs it intended to use in executions. Those labels permitted the public and the pharmaceutical industry to identify the manufacturers of the execution drugs, who then sued the state or charged state officials with violating the companies' contract rights. Solomon Graves, spokesperson for the Department of Corrections said the department has been working with the governor's and attorney general's offices on amending the Arkansas Method of Execution Act to prevent disclosure of information that would identify drug manufacturers. "We are not actively looking for additional drug supplies at this time," he said. Arkansas does not currently have any execution dates set, but it scheduled eight executions in an unprecedented 11-day period in April 2017 in an attempt to carry out the executions before its supply of the sedative midazolam expired. Four of the executions went forward, but not before controversy surrounded the state's purchase of all three drugs in its execution protocol. Prior to the executions, Associated Press learned that the state's second drug—the paralytic vecuronium bromide—had been manufactured by Hospira, a subsidiary of the drugmaker Pfizer. Pfizer, which made international news with its May 2016 announcement of strict distribution controls designed to block states from obtaining and using its medicines in executions, informed its drug distributor, McKesson Medical-Surgical, that the sale violated their distribution agreement. McKesson then sued Arkansas, alleging that the state had deliberately misled the company to believe that the drug would be used for legitimate medical purposes. The companies Fresenius Kabi USA, LLC, and West-Ward Pharmaceuticals Corp.—the manufacturers of the potassium chloride that Arkansas used as the third drug in its executions—also attempted to intervene in federal litigation to stay the April executions, writing that "use of their medicines for lethal injections violates contractual supply-chain controls that [they] have implemented ... to prevent the sale of their medicines for use in capital punishment." Following the expiration of its supply of midazolam, the director of the Department of Correction, Wendy Kelley, purchased a new supply of the drug in cash. The package identified a New York company, Athenex, as the manufacturer, who said Arkansas acquired the drug in violation of the company's agreements with distributors barring the use of its products in executions. McKesson's lawsuit remained active until the state's supply of vecuronium bromide expired this Spring and the parties agreed the suit had become moot. However, the expiration of the drug left Arkansas without the means to carry out any executions until it obtains a new supply of the paralytic. Graves said that the Department of Corrections has no intention of resuming its search for execution drugs until the state legislature exempts the suppliers and manufacturers from the state's public disclosure laws. The legislature does not meet until 2019, at which point the other two execution drugs will have expired.

Court Rulings Raise Questions of What Constitutes Incompetency and How is it Determined

Two recent high court rulings have raised questions of whether death-row prisoners are sufficiently mentally impaired to be deemed incompetent to be executed and who gets to make that determination. On November 7, the Arkansas Supreme Court issued an order staying the execution of death-row prisoner Jack Greene (pictured, left) to resolve whether that state's mechanism to determine competency—giving the director of the Arkansas Department of Correction ("ADC") sole discretion to make the decision—violates due process. One day earlier, a unanimous United States Supreme Court permitted the execution of Alabama death-row prisoner, Vernon Madison (pictured, right), to go forward—despite evidence that strokes have left him legally blind, incontinent, unable to walk independently, and with no memory of the offense for which he was sentenced to death—saying that the Alabama Supreme Court's ruling that Madison had a rational understanding of his execution was not contrary to or an unreasonable application of clearly established federal constitutional law. Greene's lawyers had argued to the Arkansas Supreme Court that Arkansas had violated his right to due process when corrections director Wendy Kelley ruled him competent to be executed without having conducted any independent mental health evaluation or providing Greene's lawyers any opportunity to contest her determination. According to court filings, Greene is severely mentally ill and psychotic, delusionally believes that the ADC has destroyed his central nervous system, engages in "extreme physical contortions and self-mutilations" to attempt to combat the pain, and thinks the state and his lawyers are colluding to execute him to prevent disclosure of the injuries he believes have been inflicted by the state. In his Last Will and Testament, signed on November 1, he asked that his head be surgically removed after the execution and examined by a television reality show doctor in an effort to prove that he has been subjected to "percussion concussion brain injuries . . . inflicted by the Arkansas Department of Corrections since July 5, 2004." His lawyers have been seeking a court hearing on Greene's mental status to determine his competency. In ther Alabama case, the Supreme Court reversed a decision of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit that had found Madison incompetent to be executed. The federal appeals court had rejected the state court's finding that Madison was aware of the reasons for his impending execution, saying that because of his stroke-induced "memory loss, difficulty communicating, and profound disorientation and confusion," he lacked an understanding of the "connection between his crime and his execution." The Supreme Court reversed the lower court's decision, holding that there was no clearly established law concerning when "a prisoner is incompetent to be executed because of a failure to remember his commission of the crime," as "distinct from a failure to rationally comprehend the concepts of crime and punishment as applied in his case." Prosecutors in Arkansas said that they will not seek rehearing of the decision in Greene's case, and state attorneys in Alabama have not yet asked for an execution date for Madison.

Arkansas Supreme Court Orders Partial Disclosure of Information on State's Lethal-Injection Drugs

The Arkansas Supreme Court has ruled that the state's Freedom of Information Act requires the Arkansas Department of Corrections (ADC) to release copies of the pharmaceutical drug and packaging labels for the supply of the drug midazolam that it intends to use in upcoming executions, but that the secrecy provisions of the state's Methods of Execution Act permit the department to redact the batch and lot numbers that appear on the labels. The high court's November 2 decision reverses part of an earlier ruling by a Pulaski County Circuit Court that had directed the ADC to disclose the entire packaging labels. The appeals court ruling effectively permits the public and the pharmaceutical industry to identify the company that manufactured the midazolam that Arkansas purchased for the execution of Jack Greene on November 9, but the redaction prevents disclosure of information that could allow the public and the manufacturer to learn the identity of the company or companies that supplied and sold those drugs to the state. The identities of both the manufacturers and suppliers of the drugs used to execute prisoners have been at the center of a continuing controversy in Arkansas, as both drug manufacturers and their distributors have alleged that the state improperly obtained the drugs by misrepresenting the purposes for which they would be used or by breaching contracts between manufacturers and suppliers that prohibit the sale of medicines to state prisons for use in executions. The Arkansas Department of Corrections had argued in the litigation that the Methods of Execution Act required that materials that could reveal the identities of the drug manufacturers be kept secret because "[a]bsent such an interpretation, drug manufacturers will continue to be publicly identified in published news reports and will continue to interject themselves into litigation in an effort to halt the State’s use of their drugs for capital punishment." The state supreme court disagreed, saying that when the legislature wrote the MEA, it included specific provisions relating to manufacturers, could have included manufacturers among those identities covered by secrecy provisions, and did not do so. The court said that, instead, the legislature required the ADC to conduct executions with "drugs that are made by an FDA-approved manufacturer," and that withholding the identity of the manufacturer would make it impossible for the public to "verify whether the ADC is complying with that requirement." 

Former Arkansas Death-Row Prisoner Rickey Dale Newman Exonerated After Nearly 17 Years in Prison

An Arkansas trial judge has dismissed all charges against former death-row prisoner, Rickey Dale Newman (pictured), setting him free on October 11 after having spent nearly 17 years in custody following the February 2001 murder of a transient woman in a "hobo park" on the outskirts of Van Buren, Arkansas. Newman became the 160th person since 1973 to be exonerated after having having been wrongly convicted and sentenced to death. Newman, a former Marine with major depression, chronic posttraumatic stress disorder from childhood abuse, and an IQ in the intellectually disabled range, was seriously mentally ill and homeless at the time he was charged with murdering Marie Cholette. He was convicted and sentenced to death in June 2002 after a one-day trial in which the court permitted him to represent himself. No physical evidence linked Newman to the murder, but at trial a prosecution expert falsely testified that hair found on Newman's clothing came from the victim. Newman also told the jury he had committed the murder and asked them to impose the death penalty. He subsequently sought to waive his appeals and be executed. The Arkansas Supreme Court initially held that Newman had been mentally competent and granted his request to drop his appeals. However, four days before his scheduled execution on July 26, 2005, Newman permitted federal public defenders, including his current counsel, Julie Brain, to seek a stay of execution. DNA evidence on the blanket on which the victim was found excluded Newman, and the federal defenders obtained DNA testing of the hair evidence that disproved the prosecution's trial testimony. They also discovered that prosecutors had withheld from the defense evidence from the murder scene that contradicted what Newman had described in his confession. A federal court hearing disclosed that the state mental health doctor had made significant errors in administering and scoring tests he had relied upon for his testimony that Newman had been competent to stand trial. The Arkansas Supreme Court subsequently ordered new hearings on Newman's competency and on the evidence the prosecution had withheld from the defense. After those hearings, it wrote that "the record overwhelmingly illustrates that Newman’s cognitive deficits and mental illnesses interfered with his ability to effectively and rationally assist counsel" and overturned Newman's conviction. In September, it issued another ruling barring the use of Newman's incompetent confessions in any retrial. On October 2, Brain submitted a letter to the court saying that “Mr. Newman has now been incarcerated for over 16 years for a murder that he did not commit” and that the Arkansas Supreme Court had found that the invalid statements he had given while mentally incompetent were "the only meaningful evidence against him." In response, special prosecutor Ron Fields submitted letter to the court asking that charges be dismissed. Fields wrote that, without the confessions, prosecutors lacked sufficient evidence to obtain a conviction and "it would be a waste of tax payers money to retry [Newman]."

Mixed Rulings in Arkansas and Arizona Highlight Issue of Lethal-Injection Secrecy

Recent court rulings in Arkansas and Arizona reaching opposite outcomes highlight the continuing controversy over state practices keeping information relating to state acquisition of drugs for use in executing prisoners secret from the public. A state trial court judge in Pulaski County, Arkansas ruled on September 19 that the Arkansas Department of Correction must disclose package inserts from the supplies of the sedative midazolam recently purchased by the state as part of its three-drug execution protocol. On September 21, a federal district court judge in Arizona denied a First Amendment challenge brought by a coalition of news organizations seeking disclosure of who supplies execution drugs to the state. In the Arkansas case, circuit court judge Judge Mackie Pierce rejected arguments by lawyers for the state that the packet inserts were shielded from disclosure under state law because disclosure of the inserts would ultimately result in the discovery of who supplied execution drugs to the state. The Arkansas ruling was the second time a state trial court had ordered the Arkansas Department of Correction to disclose packaging information about its execution drugs under the state's Freedom of Information Act and public-disclosure requirements in the Arkansas Method of Execution Act. In April, another Arkansas judge directed the state to disclose packaging information related to its supply of potassium chloride, the third drug in the execution protocol, which causes the prisoners searing pain before it stops the heart unless the prisoner has been adequately anesthetized. Also in April, the drug distributor, McKesson Medical-Surgical, Inc., sued the state in an attempt to prevent it from carrying out executions with supplies of the paralytic drug, vercuronium bromide, obtained from the company under what McKesson described as false pretenses. Assistant Attorney General Jennifer Merritt had told Judge Pierce that it was necessary to keep the package labels secret because some drug manufacturers had objected to the state’s use of their drugs in executions. In his ruling, Judge Pierce said the Arkansas legislature knew how to grant pharmaceutical companies secrecy under the state's execution law, but didn’t do so. “They know what manufacturers are. They knew what the issues were," he said. The state has appealed the April order and is seeking an emergency stay to block implementation of the current order. In the Arizona case, a group of local and national news organizations, including The Arizona Republic, Guardian News & Media, Arizona Daily Star, The Associated Press, and two local television stations had sought disclosure of the state's drug suppliers, arguing that such disclosure was essential for the integrity of the criminal justice system and to determine whether the death penalty was being carried out humanely. District court judge Grant Murray Snow wrote that while the First Amendment protects speech about the death penalty, it does not require Arizona to disclose "protected information" about the identity of its drug supplier, "to the detriment of the state's ability to carry out its constitutional, lawfully imposed criminal punishments." Last December, Judge Snow had ruled in favor of the media on a separate secrecy issue, requiring the Arizona Department of Corrections to permit media witnesses to see the entire execution, including each time drugs are administered. Media witnesses had been unable to see key portions of the botched execution of Joseph Rudolph Wood in 2014, when he was administered 15 doses of lethal-injection drugs in an execution that took nearly two hours to complete. Arizona has not carried out an execution since then and no executions are currently scheduled.

Arkansas, Nevada Obtain New Supplies of Drugs, Plan to Carry Out Two Questionable Executions

The states of Arkansas and Nevada have announced that they have obtained new supplies of execution drugs that will permit them to carry out two executions in what critics have called questionable circumstances. On August 4, Arkansas obtained a supply of midazolam—the controversial drug used in botched executions in at least four states—paying $250 in cash to an undisclosed supplier for 40 vials of the drug. Then, on August 17, Attorney General Leslie Rutledge asked Governor Asa Hutchinson to set an execution date for Jack Greene (pictured), described by his lawyers as “a severely mentally ill man [with] well-documented brain damage.” Also on August 17, Nevada—which does not currently have an execution protocol in place—announced that it had obtained drugs to execute Scott Dozier, using a three-drug formula that no state has ever tried before. Dozier—who has waived his appeal rights and volunteered to be executed—is scheduled to die on November 14. In a press statement, Greene’s lawyer, John C. Williams, said “[c]apital punishment should not be used on vulnerable people like the severely mentally ill.” Greene, he said, is mentally incompetent and suffers from delusions that “his spinal cord has been removed and his central nervous system has been destroyed.” Responding to this delusion, Williams said, Greene “constantly twist[s] his body and stuff[s] his ear and nose with toilet paper to cope with the pain,” often causing himself to bleed. A spokesperson for Hutchinson—who authorized Arkansas’s unprecedented attempt to execute eight prisoners over an eleven-day span in April—has indicated that the governor will set an execution date for Greene. To execute Dozier, Nevada has indicated that it will use an untried combination of diazepam (Valium), fentanyl (an opiod), and cisatracurium (a paralytic). The state has not yet announced how the drugs will be administered. All but one of the prisoners executed in Nevada since 1977 were found to have waived their appeals; Dozier would be the state's 12th death-row prisoner to volunteer to be executed. Nevada recently spent nearly $900,000 on building a new execution chamber.  

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