An Arkansas judge issued a temporary restraining order late Friday effectively halting the state from executing six men it had 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 strong criticism from opponents of the death penalty who said it was cruel and unusual punishment and increased the likelihood of a botched execution.
The state had initially been prepared to execute eight convicted murderers this month, but recent legal rulings had already halted two executions.
Pulaski County Circuit Judge Wendell Griffen on Friday issued the restraining order preventing Arkansas from using its supply of vecuronium bromide, a drug used in the state's lethal injection cocktail.
Griffen's ruling was 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.
Arkansas Atty. Gen. Leslie Rutledge's office said it intends to file an emergency request with the state Supreme Court to vacate the order as soon as possible.
"As a public opponent of capital punishment, Judge Griffen should have recused himself from this case," Judd Deere, a spokesman for Rutledge, said Friday night.
The executions had been slated to begin Monday, followed by more on April 20, 24 and 27, with two men to die each day. No state had executed that many individuals in such a short time frame.
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.
Last week, 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.
On Friday, 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.
This week 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 this week, appended to a lawsuit by the inmates aimed at halting the executions, the companies say that they sell the drugs to wholesale distributors who 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.
The Rev. Stephen Copley, chairman of the Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty, said he was surprised by Friday's ruling but also approached it with a measure of caution.
A member of the United Methodist Church, Copley has been an outspoken critic of the death penalty and had just come back from a rally at the Arkansas Capitol when he learned about Griffen's ruling.
"It isn't over yet," Copley said. "That probably won't be the last ruling on it. I have hope, but they still have the state Supreme Court, and it has overruled Judge Griffen before."
Staff Writer David Montero contributed to this report.
7:10 p.m.: This article has been updated with additional details about the judge's ruling and comments from Judd Deere and Stephen Copley.