Arkansas inmates set to die Thursday say they're innocent

Anti-death penalty supporters Abraham Bonowitz left and Randy Gardner wait near their taped off

Anti-death penalty supporters Abraham Bonowitz left and Randy Gardner wait near their taped off"protest corral outside the Varner Unit late Monday

In a series of orders Thursday night, the high court cleared the state to execute Ledell Lee, one of eight convicted murderers that Arkansas has been trying to put to death before one of its lethal-injection drugs expires at the end of the month.

One of the inmates set to die Thursday, Stacey Johnson, says advanced DNA techniques could show that he didn't kill Carol Heath, a 25-year-old mother of two, in 1993 at her DeQueen apartment.

The Arkansas Supreme Court said in a 4-3 ruling that it would not reconsider its decision to stay Johnson's execution.

It's unclear whether the new execution obstacles would have any political fallout for the court. But courts have blocked three of those executions from going forward. In federal court, Lee said a string of incompetent lawyers failed to make the case that he is intellectually disabled and thus ineligible to be executed.

Then, last Friday, Arkansas' Supreme Court suspended, with no explanation, the execution of prisoner Bruce Ward planned for Monday this week.

One of the drugs in the Arkansas mix, midazolam had been used in flawed executions in Oklahoma and Arizona, where witnesses said the inmates appeared to twist in pain on death chamber gurneys. Attorneys for the inmate filed a request Wednesday for a stay with the state's highest court. It was used in a "botched" Oklahoma execution in 2014, when a conscious inmate faced 40 minutes of paralysis and agonizing pain before suffering a heart attack.

Gray said that drug, vecuronium bromide, "was essentially obtained illegally by the state", NPR member station KUAR's Jacob Kauffman told Morning Edition.

Justices on Thursday reversed an order by Pulaski County Circuit Judge Alice Gray that halted the use of vecuronium bromide, one of three drugs used in the state's lethal injection process, in any execution.

Arkansas inmates set to die Thursday say they're innocent
Arkansas inmates set to die Thursday say they're innocent

"In doing so, ADC led McKesson to believe that the order was placed at the request of or for the benefit of the licensed physician and would be used for a legitimate medical objective", McKesson said in the court document.

"I know the families of the victims are anxious for a clear-cut explanation from the majority as to how they came to this conclusion and how there appears to be no end to the court's review", Hutchinson said. One of those cases spared Don Davis, who again received a stay Monday night. They also said the execution should be put on hold to allow for newer types of DNA testing that were previously unavailable.

The legal maneuvers frustrated Republican Gov. Asa Hutchinson, who had set the execution schedule less than two months ago.

The judge facing re-election, Courtney Goodson, lost her bid for chief justice previous year after conservative groups blanketed the state with ads attacking her. Justice Stephen Breyer said in a dissent that he was troubled by Arkansas' push to execute the inmates before its supply of midazolam expires.

Her two young children were at home at the time.

The scheduled executions, comprising eight in total, marked the most by a state in such a compressed period since the US Supreme Court reinstated the death penalty in the 1970s.

But while Goodson voted to stay the three executions, so did the conservative-backed candidate who beat her in the chief justice race, Dan Kemp. The state and its lawyers say the inmates are seeking any legal approach they can find to avoid death.

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