In flurry of rulings, Arkansas' plan to execute inmates by month's end is halted

The executions are halted — for now.

After a flurry of last-minute legal challenges, a pair of judges have issued temporary injunctions effectively blocking Arkansas from executing six men it planned to put to death this month.

The state was prepared to execute the men in an 11-day span starting Monday, a move that drew rebuke from death penalty opponents who said it was cruel and unusual punishment, and increased the likelihood of a botched execution. (Initially, Arkansas officials had been prepared to execute eight convicted murderers this month, but recent legal rulings had already halted two executions.)

On Saturday, U.S. District Judge Kristine Baker granted a preliminary injunction requested by the inmates to block the executions, ruling that there is a significant possibility that the men could successfully challenge the state's execution protocol.

A day earlier, Pulaski County Circuit Judge Wendell Griffen issued a temporary restraining order preventing Arkansas from using its supply of vecuronium bromide, a drug used in the state’s lethal injection cocktail.

Griffen’s ruling came in response to a request from a pharmaceutical company, McKesson Medical-Surgical, which argued that its public image would suffer if the state used its drugs in executions. Moreover, McKesson argued the state had misled it as to how the drug would be used and did not inform the company it would be a part of a lethal cocktail.

Arkansas Atty. Gen. Leslie Rutledge filed emergency requests Saturday with the state Supreme Court and the federal 8th Circuit Court of Appeals to vacate the orders as soon as possible.

The executions were slated to begin Monday, followed by more on Thursday, April 24 and 27, with two men to die each day. No state had executed that many individuals in such a short time frame. The closest was Texas, which executed eight men in both May and June 1997, according to the nonprofit Death Penalty Information Center, which opposes capital punishment.

Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson set the execution dates in February after Rutledge determined that the eight men had exhausted their legal challenges. Hutchinson said the state had to act before the end of April, when the state’s supply of midazolam, an anesthetic, expired.

On Saturday, Hutchinson issued a statement on the latest legal wrangling: “I understand how difficult this is on the victims’ families, and my heart goes out to them,” he said.

The series of events in recent days have placed Arkansas officials in a race against the clock to execute the men, as death penalty opponents argue the timing and number of executions increases the potential for mishaps.

“They have attempted to carry out these executions in a rush without any concern for what could go wrong,” Robert Dunham, executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center, said Saturday.

Earlier this month, a federal judge ruled that the execution of Jason McGehee should be put on hold for 30 days after the Arkansas Parole Board suggested to Hutchinson that McGehee’s sentence should be commuted to life in prison. Hours before Griffen’s order, the Arkansas Supreme Court issued a stay of execution to Bruce Ward, who was to be put to death Monday.

On Thursday, a pair of drug manufacturers — Fresenius Kabi USA and West-Ward Pharmaceuticals Corp. — asked a federal court to block Arkansas from using its drugs for executions, claiming that doing so would violate “contractual supply-chain controls” the companies have in place. Fresenius Kabi USA produces potassium chloride, while West-Ward produces midazolam.

In a friend of the court brief filed Thursday, appended to a lawsuit by the inmates aimed at halting the executions, the companies said they sell the drugs to wholesale distributors that agree to distribute only to hospitals and medical facilities. In the brief, the companies say that their contracts with distributors specifically note that the drugs are not to be provided to correctional facilities.

“We object in the strongest possible way to any of our products being used for the purposes of capital punishment as it is inconsistent with our values and mission of improving lives, and against their licensed FDA indication,” Keri Butler, a spokeswoman for West-Ward Pharmaceuticals, said in a statement.

Under Arkansas law, the state is permitted to keep the source of its drugs a secret. Indeed, most of the 31 states that allow lethal injection have similar secrecy provisions. However, West-Ward had previously been identified by the Associated Press as the state's likely manufacturer of midazolam.

Officials with both pharmaceutical companies said they have never before filed briefs in capital punishment cases.

In 2011, the European Commission, an institution of the European Union tasked with proposing and implementing legislation, created strict controls on the export of drugs that could be used to carry out lethal injections in the United States. As a result, states have struggled to secure the drugs needed to create a lethal injection cocktail.

Hutchinson, while speaking to reporters Thursday, expressed confidence in carrying out the upcoming executions and sought to focus on the victims of the condemned men.

“There's a natural focus on those who are subject to the death penalty. That I understand,” Hutchinson said. “But at the same time, there is insufficient attention that is paid to the victims and the families in these cases.”

The Rev. Stephen Copley, chairman of the Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty, said he was surprised by Friday’s ruling, and though he remained hopeful, he also approached the news with a measure of caution.

A member of the United Methodist Church, Copley has been an outspoken critic of the death penalty and had attended a rally that day, in which the actor Johnny Depp joined hundreds at the Arkansas state Capitol calling on Hutchinson to halt the executions, when he learned about Griffen’s ruling.

“It isn’t over yet,” Copley said. “That probably won’t be the last ruling on it.”

Joining Depp and others at the rally was Damien Echols, one of “West Memphis Three” who served more than 18 years behind bars for the 1993 murders of three young boys in West Memphis, Ark.

Echols and the two others, Jessie Misskelley and Jason Baldwin, were freed in 2011 after evidence emerged to potentially challenge their convictions. The men pleaded guilty to first-degree murder, but under a rare legal arrangement were also able to claim their innocence. Death penalty critics have cited the case as a reason to oppose capital punishment.

kurtis.lee@latimes.com

Twitter: @kurtisalee

Times staff writer David Montero contributed to this report.

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UPDATES:

5:25 p.m.: This article has been updated with additional background and quotes from Gov. Asa Hutchinson and the Rev. Stephen Copley, a death penalty opponent.

This article was originally published at 6 a.m.

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