A federal judge on Saturday halted Arkansas’ plans for an extraordinary series of executions set to begin on Monday, adding to the legal chaos surrounding what began as one state’s effort to put eight convicted murderers to death over less than two weeks.
Although the Arkansas attorney general’s office appealed the ruling, Saturday’s preliminary injunction by Judge Kristine G. Baker of Federal District Court in Little Rock, Ark., threatened to unravel the state’s plan for its first executions since 2005.
The state’s execution schedule, which Gov. Asa Hutchinson set in February, was steeped in turmoil even before Judge Baker’s order on Saturday morning. Rulings by other judges had already resulted in stays of execution for two prisoners, and on Friday, a Circuit Court judge in Pulaski County issued a restraining order that barred the state from using one of its three execution drugs.
“I understand how difficult this is on the victims’ families, and my heart goes out to them as they once again deal with the continued court review,” Mr. Hutchinson said in a statement. “However, the last minute court reviews are all part of the difficult process of death penalty cases.”
In a 101-page order on Saturday, Judge Baker embraced arguments by the eight prisoners whose executions had been scheduled, plus one other death row inmate, that Arkansas’s reliance on midazolam, as an execution drug posed a risk to their constitutional rights. The drug is supposed to render a person unconscious and unable to feel pain during a lethal injection.
“The threat of irreparable harm to the plaintiffs is significant: If midazolam does not adequately anesthetize plaintiffs, or if their executions are ‘botched,’ they will suffer severe pain before they die,” Judge Baker, an appointee of President Barack Obama, wrote. She added that the men had “shown a significant possibility that they will succeed on the merits of their method of execution claims based on midazolam.”
Although the case before Judge Baker was central to the efforts to stop the executions, state judges were also asked to consider an array of arguments, including one on Friday that Arkansas had relied on a false pretense when it bought one of its lethal injection drugs from the nation’s largest pharmaceutical distributor.
According to that company, McKesson Corporation, the state bought vials of vecuronium bromide in July, even though Arkansas officials knew that McKesson and the drug’s manufacturer had taken steps to prevent its use in executions.
A quiet clash simmered for months, and in a letter to state officials on Thursday, a lawyer for McKesson complained that the Arkansas prison system had “purchased the products on an account that was opened under the valid medical license of an Arkansas physician, implicitly representing that the products would only be used for a legitimate medical purpose.”
The company went to court on Friday, and a judge quickly blocked state officials from carrying out executions with the drug. After Judge Baker’s ruling on Saturday, McKesson asked for the temporary restraining order to be abandoned because “the imminent danger that defendants would use McKesson’s property and be unable to return it” had been addressed by the federal court’s action.
Supporters of midazolam’s continued use in executions often say that the drug is not one of choice — they would prefer to carry out death sentences with other drugs that have become especially difficult for states to buy — but they contend that the medicine does not leave prisoners vulnerable to unacceptable risks.
Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr., writing for the Supreme Court in the 2015 case that allowed for midazolam to remain the ranks of the nation’s execution drugs, said the court had found that “the Constitution does not require the avoidance of all risk of pain.”
Then he added: “After all, while most humans wish to die a painless death, many do not have that good fortune. Holding that the Eighth Amendment demands the elimination of essentially all risk of pain would effectively outlaw the death penalty altogether.”