A judge in Arkansas has issued an order blocking the state from executing six men next week, starting Monday night.
The state's compressed schedule had drawn widespread attention — for both the pace of the executions and the manner in which the state obtained the drugs it planned to use in the lethal injections.
The temporary restraining order by Pulaski County Judge Wendell Griffen followed one earlier Friday by another court, the Arkansas Supreme Court, which had stayed one execution. According to his attorney, Scott Braden, Bruce Ward is mentally ill and "has no rational understanding of the punishment he is slated to suffer or the reason why he is to suffer it."
Braden also states:
"We are grateful that the Arkansas Supreme Court has issued a stay of execution for Bruce Ward so that they may consider the serious questions presented about his sanity. He deserves a day in court for that, but in Arkansas the rules do not permit that. Instead, they give the power to director of the department of corrections to decide whether the department can execute someone or not. That is both unfair and unconstitutional."
The other inmates had argued that the speed with which the executions were to go forward trampled on their rights, stunting clemency proceedings and causing them undue suffering.
Last week U.S. District Judge D. Price Marshall Jr. proved receptive to that argument, ruling that the original schedule did not allow enough time for the clemency petition of one of the death-row inmates, Jason McGehee, to proceed.
Since a parole board recently recommended clemency for McGehee, Marshall said the schedule prevented carrying out the 30-day comment period on McGehee's petition.
As NPR's Camila Domonoske noted, the ruling bumps McGehee's execution past the end-of-April expiration date for its supply of midazolam, one of the drugs in the state's lethal injection cocktail.
The drugs themselves have been in dispute, as well.
On Thursday night, the medical supplier McKesson issued a statement objecting to the manner in which the state obtained its vecuronium bromide, another of the three drugs in the cocktail. McKesson supplies the drug — which is produced by Hospira and its parent company, Pfizer — to pharmacies, hospitals and other organizations.
"The Arkansas Department of Correction intentionally sought to circumvent McKesson's policies to procure Pfizer's vecuronium bromide under the auspices that it would be used for medical purposes in ADC's health facility," McKesson said in its statement.
The company says that it tried multiple times to get the state to offer assurances the drug won't be used in lethal injections or simply to get the drug returned, and that McKesson even refunded the cost, but the state did not comply.
So, McKesson says, "it is considering all possible means by which to secure the return of the product, up to and including legal action."
The Associated Press explains that "under Arkansas' protocol, midazolam is used to sedate the inmate, vecuronium bromide then stops the inmate's breathing and potassium chloride stops the heart."
According to the wire service, Pfizer says the vecuronium bromide was sold to Arkansas without Pfizer's knowledge, while Fresenius Kabi USA and West-Ward Pharmaceuticals Corp. — the presumed makers of the state's supply of potassium chloride and midazolam, respectively — also filed a friend of the court brief in the inmates' case, "objecting to their drugs' use in the executions."
Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson has defended the timeline of the executions, citing the expiration date of the state's supply of midazolam.
"One of the three drugs in the lethal injection protocol expires at the end of April," Hutchinson said in a statement emailed to NPR last month. "In order to fulfill my duty as Governor, which is to carry out the lawful sentence imposed by a jury, it is necessary to schedule the executions prior to the expiration of that drug."
He says that despite the compressed execution schedule, the inmates have in some cases already received "decades of review."
It is "important to bring closure to the victims' families who have lived with the court appeals and uncertainty for a very long time," Hutchinson says.