Arkansas' attempt to carry out a spate of executions before the end of the month has run into two fresh legal obstacles.
The first, a ruling from the Arkansas Supreme Court on Wednesday, granted a stay of execution to prisoner Stacey Johnson, who is scheduled to die tonight.
The second, a ruling from Pulaski County Circuit Court Judge Alice Gray, effectively stays all the scheduled executions over concerns about how the state obtained one of the three drugs in its lethal injection protocol.
Gray said that drug, vecuronium bromide, "was essentially obtained illegally by the state," NPR member station KUAR's Jacob Kauffman told Morning Edition.
McKesson Corp., a San Francisco-based medical supply company, "claimed that the state deliberately circumvented them to use the drugs for executions. They were told the drug would only be used in prison health clinics for its proper medicinal use, as opposed to putting prisoners to death."
The Associated Press reported that "Judd Deere, a spokesman for Arkansas Attorney General Leslie Rutledge, said the state will appeal that ruling."
On Friday, a different Pulaski County judge issued a similar ruling on vecuronium bromide. Judge Wendell Griffin's decision was vacated Monday by the Arkansas Supreme Court, as we reported. In fact, the court ordered Griffin removed from all death penalty cases after photos emerged of him participating in a rally against the executions. Arkansas had initially scheduled eight inmates to die over an 11-day period in April — the fastest pace of executions in decades.
The state of Arkansas has justified the pace of the scheduled executions because another lethal injection drug, the sedative midazolam, expires at the end of April.
Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson said he was "surprised and disappointed" by Wednesday's state Supreme Court stay of Johnson's 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 has been reviewed multiple times by the Arkansas Supreme Court, which affirmed the guilt of each."
Regarding Johnson's stay of execution, it's not clear whether Rutledge will file an appeal. "I am evaluating options on how to proceed to ensure that justice is carried out," she said in a statement Wednesday night.
Johnson and Ledell Lee, the other prisoner who was scheduled to be executed tonight, both say they are innocent. "They both want the use of new DNA technology, new DNA testing, that they haven't gotten since they were first convicted in the early '90s," Kauffman reported.
Lawyers for Lee are also petitioning for a reprieve from the state's top court, which has yet to issue a ruling.
The Arkansas Democrat-Gazette says the state is going forward with preparations for tonight's executions even though they are currently on hold:
"In preparation for their scheduled executions, Johnson and Lee were moved Tuesday to the Cummins Unit, the location of the state's execution chamber, a prisons spokesman said Wednesday.
"The spokesman, Solomon Graves, said the two are being held in separate cells adjacent to the execution chamber, which is a short drive down the road from the Varner Unit, another prison that houses death-row inmates.
"Neither inmate had been moved back to the Varner Unit as of Wednesday evening, and Graves said the prison was awaiting guidance from the governor and attorney general."
Kauffman reported that the uncertainty is stressful for the victims' families. "But in many ways," he says, "it's emotions they've experienced before, since these executions have been going through different legal hurdles for 20 years or so."