Attorneys for two death-row inmates filed two petitions Wednesday seeking to halt their executions next month while Arkansas' attorney general argued in a separate case that prison officials should not be forced to disclose information about the drugs used in lethal injections.
The filings come 21 days before eight convicted killers are scheduled to die by lethal injection in Arkansas' first use of the death penalty since 2005. Arkansas has not executed anyone in more than a decade because of legal challenges to its method of death and difficulties in acquiring the necessary drugs.
In one lawsuit filed Wednesday, a national nonprofit law firm asked a circuit court judge in Jefferson County to consider inmate Bruce Ward's extreme schizophrenia as grounds for a permanent stay of execution.
In Little Rock, Stacey Johnson, through attorney Jeff Rosenzweig, asked the Arkansas Supreme Court for a stay of execution to re-evaluate evidence from his 1993 trial.
Ward and Johnson are among eight inmates whose execution dates have been expedited to occur between April 17 and April 27 because the state's supply of midazolam -- an anesthetic administered before the injection of fatal drugs -- expires on May 1.
Earlier this week, two federal lawsuits were filed in an effort to stop the executions. One petition, filed by the eight condemned men and one other death-row inmate, argued that the tight timeline of the executions violates the prisoners' rights under the U.S. Constitution's Eighth Amendment.
The second suit, filed by six of the eight prisoners, claimed that a subsequently short period for hearing the convicts' clemency appeals violates their due-process rights.
In a separate case Wednesday before Pulaski County Circuit Judge Wendell Griffen, Attorney General Leslie Rutledge argued that the secrecy requirements in the state's execution law must prevail over the public disclosure provisions of that law.
Griffen is scheduled to hear arguments at 1:30 p.m. today on whether the state Department of Correction can be forced to release a redacted copy of the label on the state's supply of the heart-stopping drug potassium chloride, one of the three drugs used in the lethal-injection process.
Little Rock attorney Steven Shults has sued to force the Correction Department to release the label. He contends that the prisons agency is required to disclose the material under both the state Freedom of Information Act and its Method of Execution Act.
Prison officials declined to release the label information, stating that they cannot comply with both the public disclosure requirement and the secrecy provisions established by the Legislature.
Also on Wednesday, the Arkansas Board of Parole rejected one bid for clemency submitted by Marcel Williams. Williams, who was convicted in 1997 of kidnapping, robbing, raping and killing a woman, presented his case before the board on Monday.
The board rejected his bid by a 4-2 vote. Commissioner Abraham Carpenter Jr. voted for clemency, saying that "in this case, I think it's more punishment to live and to suffer."
Williams' execution is scheduled for April 24.
The Parole Board previously rejected clemency pleas from Ledell Lee and Stacey Johnson, both of whom are scheduled to be executed April 20.
Ward and Johnson
In the Jefferson County effort to stop Ward's execution, attorneys for the public-interest law firm the Phillips Black Project argue that Ward's incompetence renders his execution unconstitutional.
After 26 years of living on death row in a cell less than 90 square feet, spending the majority of his time in solitary confinement, and "having not gone outside in over a decade," his confinement conditions have greatly exacerbated his mental instability, the attorneys state.
The Phillips Black Project is a nonprofit consortium of law firms based in North Carolina that focuses on post-conviction capital cases.
The project hired an independent psychiatrist to examine Ward because, according to the suit, he had never undergone any serious mental examination during his previous stages of litigation.
According to the psychiatrist's notes, Ward "seems to believe he was the target of a conspiracy" between criminal justice officials, including federal public defenders who previously represented him.
Ward "cited divine revelation, which caused him to believe he will never receive the death penalty but will walk out of prison to great riches and public acclaim, including a Hollywood movie about the information he reveals. He made reference to hearing voices that confirmed his beliefs and the reality and validity of his views," the suit states.
Ward, 60, has been on death row since 1990 for strangling 18-year-old Rebecca Lynn Doss in the bathroom of a convenience store in Little Rock.
The suit names Gov. Asa Hutchinson, Correction Department Director Wendy Kelley, Varner Supermax Prison Warden Randy Watson, and Benny Magness, chairman of the Arkansas Board of Corrections, as defendants.
Neither Kelley nor her spokesman responded to requests for comment.
Stacey Johnson was sentenced to death in 1994 for the killing of Carol Heath in her De Queen apartment while her children were home.
In 1996, his conviction was thrown out by the state's Supreme Court because of improper evidence. After a new trial, Johnson's conviction was affirmed by the state Supreme Court by a 4-3 vote a year later. He was again sentenced to death.
In his appeal to the Supreme Court, Johnson is petitioning for a re-evaluation of certain DNA evidence. Johnson was connected to the killing by hairs found in the victim's apartment and on a shirt found nearby.
According to Rosenzweig, a change in Arkansas jurisprudence set forth in a case last year permits the reexamination of evidence in the case. Rosenzweig said he will file additional information on the DNA re-examination within the next week.
"These filings present serious legal issues," he said.
Last-minute filings and appeals are common in the weeks before a scheduled execution, a legal expert said.
"It is quite common for a large number of expedited emergency appeals to be filed in the days and weeks, and even hours, leading up to a scheduled execution," said Joshua Silverstein, a law professor at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock.
"Most last-second appeals are denied. Every now and then there's an exception, every now and then even the U.S. Supreme Court will step in and stop an execution on some ground, or ask for further hearing or briefing, but most last-second appeals fail."
In responding to Shults' suit Wednesday, Rutledge states Griffen has nothing to decide anyway because the state Supreme Court already ruled on the drug secrecy question when it reversed an earlier Griffen ruling last June and reinstated the death penalty.
The high court ruling included a finding that condemned inmates had no right to know the source of the state's supply of execution drugs, Rutledge argues.
"In that case, the Arkansas Supreme Court held that the confidentiality provisions of the [execution law] do not violate procedural due process, the cruelty clause, the liberty of speech and the press, the contract clause, or the publication clause," according to the pleading, written by Senior Assistant Attorney General Colin Jorgensen.
Griffen himself acknowledged that the high court's opinion is the controlling decision on the lethal-injection drug secrecy, according to Rutledge's response.
That acknowledgment came Tuesday in the judge's 10-page order stating that he was required to dismiss the remnants of a 2015 lawsuit by nine condemned killers, eight of whom are scheduled for execution next month, because of last summer's Supreme Court ruling.
But Griffen also emphasized he disagreed with the high court, criticizing the 4-3 opinion as a deliberate effort to deny condemned inmates access to the courts.
Arkansas lawmakers contend that the only way the state can maintain its execution drug supply is if the source of those supplies is kept from the public so distributors and manufacturers are not harassed by anti-death penalty activists.
Some countries bar the sale of execution drugs, while many pharmaceutical companies require guarantees from purchasers that their products will not be used to kill.
Correction officials state that the only way to comply with the secrecy requirements of the execution law is if they do not allow the drug labels to be made public because the labels are unique to specific manufacturers.
"In sum, the [Correction Department] cannot redact and disclose the package insert and label for the injectable potassium chloride in its possession because the publicly-available information about package inserts and labels would lead to the identification of the seller and/or supplier in direct violation of the [execution act.]," the attorney general's filing states.
Shults has been regularly inquiring about potassium chloride since last October when prison officials disclosed its supply would expire in February. Authorities acquired 100 vials earlier this month.
A Section on 03/30/2017
Print Headline: 2 convicts appeal to halt April injections