GRADY — Two executions that Arkansas planned to carry out Monday night were called off because of court rulings, one of them at the last minute.
Don William Davis and Bruce Earl Ward were the first two men the state had planned to put to death in a series of executions over 11 days, but stays imposed by the Arkansas Supreme Court caused the executions to be cancelled Monday.
In Davis’ case, the cancellation came at 11:50 p.m., or 10 minutes before his death warrant expired and after prison officials had begun moving witnesses into place at the state Department of Correction’s Cummins Unit near Grady.
Earlier Monday, the 8th Circuit Court of Appeals in St. Louis vacated an order issued Saturday by U.S. District Judge Kristine Baker that had stayed all of the state’s planned April executions pending resolution of certain claims by the inmates. The inmates allege that the state’s execution plan would violate their constitutional rights, including their right not to receive cruel and unusual punishment.
The inmates claim the sedative midazolam would not render them unconscious and unable to feel pain before other drugs intended to stop their lungs and heart are administered. State officials disagree and have testified in court that they chose to obtain midazolam because the makers of other sedatives have refused to sell their products for use in executions.
The state is seeking to use its supply of the drug in executions before the supply expires at the end of this month.
Also Monday, the state Supreme Court vacated an temporary restraining order issued Friday by Pulaski County Circuit Judge Wendell Griffen that barred the state from using one of its three execution drugs pending resolution of claims by a medical supply company that the state obtained the drug improperly.
But on the same day the state received those rulings in its favor, the state Supreme Court issued rulings maintaining a previous stay of the execution of Bruce Earl Ward and imposing a new, separate stay on the executions of Ward and Don Williams Davis.
Ward and Davis had been scheduled to be executed starting at 7 p.m. Monday.
The state’s highest court initially stayed the execution of Bruce Earl Ward in an order issued Friday. On Monday, the court vacated its previous order but replaced it with one that again granted a stay of execution to allow further evaluation of Ward’s competence. Ward’s attorneys say he is severely mentally ill and is not competent to understand the punishment he is to receive.
Friday’s order gave no indication of dissent, but in Monday’s order the court noted that Justices Karen Baker, Rhonda Wood and Shawn Womack would not have granted a stay of execution.
Ward, 60, has been sentenced to die for the 1990 strangulation of 18-year-old Little Rock convenience store clerk Rebecca Lynn Doss.
Also Monday, the state Supreme Court issued an order staying the executions of both Ward and Davis in a case in which the inmates’ attorneys have argued that the two men’s executions should be halted until the U.S. Supreme Court reaches a decision in a case involving access to independent mental health experts, which they claim Ward and Davis were denied.
Baker, Wood and Womack also dissented from that ruling.
Davis, 54, has been sentenced to die for the 1990 shooting of 62-year-old Jane Daniel of Rogers during a robbery at her home.
Arkansas Attorney General Leslie Rutledge asked the U.S. Supreme Court to vacate the state affecting both Ward and Davis but not the ruling affecting only Ward, effectively conceding that Ward could not be executed this month.
Department of Correction spokesman Solomon graves announced to reporters at the Cummins Unit Monday night that the U.S. Supreme Court had declined to lift the stays of execution for Ward and Davis. The decision apparently means Davis cannot be executed in April.
Gov Asa Hutchinson said in a statement, “I am disappointed in this delay for the victim’s family. However, the 8th Circuit decision today overturning Judge Baker’s stay and the Arkansas Supreme Court ruling vacating Judge Griffen’s temporary restraining order mean that the courts have once again cleared the state to proceed with carrying out the sentences of the other inmates.
“While this has been an exhausting day for all involved, tomorrow we will continue to fight back on last minute appeals and efforts to block justice for the victims’ families,” he said.
Rutledge said in a statement, “It is heartbreaking that the family of Jane Daniel has once again seen justice delayed. Davis was convicted of his crimes in 1992, and my office took every action it could today to see that justice was carried out. Ultimately, the U.S. Supreme Court has the final say and has decided not to lift the stay at this time.
“There are five scheduled executions remaining with nothing preventing them from occurring, but I will continue to respond to any and all legal challenges brought by the prisoners. The families have waited far too long to see justice, and I will continue to make that a priority,” she said.
Hutchinson initially scheduled eight executions between Monday and April 27, with double executions to be conducted on four different nights.
The first inmate whose execution was halted was Jason McGehee, who received a stay from a federal judge in Little Rock on April 6 after the state Parole Board recommended he receive executive clemency.
On Sunday, a federal judge in Fayetteville ruled in the state’s favor and denied a motion for a separate stay of execution for Davis.
Other inmates the state is seeking to execute this month are Stacey Eugene Johnson, Marcel Williams, Kenneth Williams, Ledell Lee and Jack Harold Jones. Johnson and Lee are scheduled for execution Thursday night.
The American Civil Liberties Union of Arkansas filed a lawsuit Monday in federal court in Pine Bluff seeking a stay of Lee’s execution. The ACLU argued that Lee is innocent, that the testing of evidence in his case was inadequate and that he has an intellectual disability that has never been brought to the attention of a court or jury.
Arkansas has not executed an inmate since 2005 because of legal challenges and difficulty obtaining execution drugs.