Arkansas Executes Inmate, After Flurry Of Appeals Fail

Ledell Lee, one of two men originally scheduled to be executed Thursday, was killed by the state just before midnight

Inmates (top row L to R) Bruce Ward, Don Davis, Ledell Lee, and Stacy Johnson. — REUTERS
Apr 20, 2017 at 1:43 PM ET

Update: Arkansas carried out its first execution in over a decade late Thursday, putting Ledell Lee to death via lethal injection just before midnight. The execution was carried out after the U.S. Supreme Court declined to hear a flurry of last minute appeals from the man’s lawyers. 

Efforts by Arkansas to carry out a rapid series of executions this month are being frustrated by a spate of legal challenges. Two men schedule to die Thursday have had their executions temporarily stayed, and now four out of eight executions planned for an 11-day period have been delayed.

On Wednesday, a court in the state’s capital effectively blocked upcoming executions by granting a temporary restraining order to drug company McKesson. It prevents the state from using vecuronium bromide from McKesson, a drug used in the state’s lethal injection cocktail, over concerns that Arkansas got the drug under false pretenses. The company argues that the Arkansas Department of Corrections “intentionally sought to circumvent McKesson’s policies to procure Pfizer’s vecuronium bromide under the auspices it would be used for medical purposes in ADC’s health facility” — rather than to kill people.

The company said Wednesday that it was “pleased” with the court ruling, and it looks forward “to the return of our product.”

Both of the prisoners who were set to die Thursday are also fighting their executions with a separate set of suits. Ledell Lee, whose execution had been scheduled for 7 p.m. on Thursday, appealed for a stay of execution to prove his innocence through DNA testing.

“Mr. Lee has consistently maintained his innocence, and yet the state is rushing to put him to death without giving him the opportunity to do the DNA testing that could prove who actually committed the crime,” Nina Morrison, a senior staff attorney with the Innocence Project, said in a statement Wednesday. That organization told Vocativ on Thursday that it has “a separate stay request before the Arkansas Supreme Court which hasn’t ruled yet.”

Lee was convicted of the 1993 murder and sexual assault of Debra Reese, while Stacey Johnson, the second man scheduled to die, was convicted of the 1993 murder of Carol Heath. Both have maintained their innocence.

Earlier Wednesday, in a separate ruling, the Arkansas Supreme Court granted a stay of execution to Johnson, in order to give the prisoner more time to prove his innocence with DNA testing.

However, the state of Arkansas has argued in favor of its incredibly rapid schedule for executions on the grounds that another one of its lethal injection drugs, midazolam, expires at the end of April. Experts argue that killing prisoners so quickly is a terrible idea.

“The execution set by Arkansas has not been attempted by any state in recent history, if ever,” Jen Moreno, a staff attorney Berkeley Law’s Death Penalty Clinic, told Vocativ Wednesday. “There are significant doubts whether midazolam, even if administered correctly, can anesthetize the prisoner so he will not experience the effects of the second and third drug. On top of that inherent risk, the schedule puts extreme pressure on the execution team, which increases the chance of botched executions.”

Meanwhile, Arkansas Governor Asa Hutchinson said he was “surprised and disappointed” with the state Supreme Court’s decision to grant Johnson a stay of execution.

“When I set the dates, I knew there could be delays in one or more of the cases, but I expected the courts to allow the juries’ sentences to be carried out since each case had been reviewed multiple times by the Arkansas Supreme Court, which affirmed the guilt of each,” he said in a release on Wednesday.