VARNER, Ark. (AP) - The Arkansas Supreme Court halted the executions of two men originally scheduled to be put to death Monday night, putting another legal roadblock in place in the state's plan to conduct eight lethal injections before its supply of a key drug expires at the end of April.
It has asked the Arkansas Supreme Court to reconsider its decision to put on hold the first of the scheduled lethal injections, of Bruce Earl Ward, after his attorneys argued that he is a diagnosed schizophrenic with no rational understanding of his impending execution.
A divided Arkansas Supreme Court granted stays of executions for two Arkansas inmates while the U.S. Supreme Court takes up a separate case next week concerning access to independent mental health experts by defendants.
Attorney General Leslie Rutledge said she would seek an immediate review of the state high court's ruling, but did not indicate where.
In its filing to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit in St. Louis, the state attorney general's office said the inmates' request to halt the executions "is nothing more than an attempt to manipulate the judicial process". The state has appealed the ruling, which blocked a plan to execute eight men in 11 days in four double executions, starting Monday night.
The state has not said whether it will appeal a federal judge's decision to grant a stay to another inmate, Jason McGehee, who had won a clemency recommendation from the state Parole Board. A spokesman for Rutledge initially said the motion was rejected Monday, but he later said that was incorrect and the state had simply not yet acted on it.
The high court's decision came after the state filed an emergency petition asking to have Judge Griffen removed from the case, saying his behavior "makes it crystal clear that he can not be considered impartial in matters related to the death penalty". That would be the most of any state in as short a period since the U.S. Supreme Court reinstated the death penalty in 1976, according to the Death Penalty Information Center, a Washington-based nonprofit that monitors U.S. capital punishment. "We find it necessary to immediately reassign all cases in the Fifth Division that involve the death penalty or the state's execution protocol, whether civil or criminal". The drug is supposed to render a person unconscious and unable to feel pain during a lethal injection. The high court asked a disciplinary panel to consider whether Griffen violated the code of conduct for judges.
The state also argued that U.S. District Judge Kristine Baker abused her discretion when she ruled about potential harm from midazolam. But the ruling did not change the situation because Baker's order had already halted all the executions.
In its request that the 8th Circuit review whether the inmates should be spared because of society's "evolving standards of decency", the inmates lawyers say that even the executioners could benefit if Arkansas used a less-compressed timetable. Protesters gather outside the state Capitol building on Friday, April 14, 2017, in Little Rock, Ark., to voice their opposition to Arkansas' seven upcoming executions.
Arkansas says it can not find a new drug supply if the executions are delayed.
As the legal battle plays out, the state's execution facility is readying for a rapid reversal of the decisions.
Arkansas is fighting on multiple legal fronts to begin a series of double-executions.