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Arkansas Supreme Court grants emergency stay for inmate facing execution

Bruce Ward/ Department of Corrections via AP

LITTLE ROCK — The Arkansas Supreme Court on Friday halted the execution of one of seven inmates facing lethal injection, while a federal judge weighed whether to block the state’s plan to put the men to death before the end of the month.

A medical supplier, meanwhile, said one of the three drugs the state plans to use to put the prisoners to death wasn’t sold to be used for lethal injections.

Justices issued an emergency stay for Bruce Ward, who was scheduled to be put to death on Monday night for the 1989 death of a woman found strangled in the men’s room of the Little Rock convenience store where she worked. Attorneys asked for the stay after a Jefferson County judge said she didn’t have the authority to halt Ward’s execution. Ward’s attorneys have argued he is a diagnosed schizophrenic with no rational understanding of his impending execution.

“We are grateful that the Arkansas Supreme Court has issued a stay of execution for Bruce Ward so that they may consider the serious questions presented about his sanity,” Scott Braden, an assistant federal public defender representing Ward, said in a statement.

The decision leaves six men facing execution, though U.S. District Judge Kristine Baker is considering the inmates’ arguments that such a compressed schedule could lead to undue pain and suffering. Baker had not ruled by Friday evening. Arkansas scheduled the executions to take place before its supply of midazolam expires at the end of the month.

The Arkansas high court did not elaborate on its decision in its one-page ruling. Attorney General Leslie Rutledge’s office said she was evaluating options on how to proceed.

Baker is also considering a request from two drugmakers that their products not be used for capital punishment. Two pharmaceutical companies on Thursday filed a court brief asking the court to prohibit Arkansas from using their drugs, while San Francisco-based medical supply company McKesson said it sold Arkansas one drug believing it would be used for medical purposes.

Under Arkansas’ protocol, midazolam is used to sedate the inmate, vecuronium bromide then stops the inmate’s breathing and potassium chloride stops the heart.

Arkansas has been planning to execute seven inmates before the end of April, when its supply of midazolam expires. McKesson sold the state vecuronium bromide. In a statement Thursday night, McKesson said it complained to the state after learning that Arkansas planned to use the drug for lethal injections. The state said it would return the drug, McKesson said, and the company issued a refund, but the drug was never returned.

McKesson said it is considering “all possible means” to get the drug back, including legal action.

A prisons spokesman did not immediately return a call seeking comment Friday. Republican Gov. Asa Hutchinson’s office did not have an immediate comment on the supplier’s statement.

The Associated Press last year used redacted drug labels to identify Hospira, which was purchased by Pfizer, as the likely manufacturer of vecuronium bromide. Pfizer has objected to the use of its drugs in lethal injections and has put controls in place to prevent them from being used in executions. Pfizer said McKesson sold the drug to Arkansas without Pfizer’s knowledge. The company said it has asked the state twice to return any restricted Pfizer or Hospira drugs.

Fresenius Kabi USA and West-Ward Pharmaceuticals Corp. filed a friend of the court brief objecting to their drugs’ use in the executions. Fresenius Kabi said it appeared it had manufactured the potassium chloride the state plans to use, while West-Ward had previously been identified by the AP as the likely manufacturer of the state’s midazolam.

The timeline drew condemnation from hundreds of death penalty opponents who rallied at the Capitol waving signs including a large banner that read, “We remember the victims … But not with more killing.” The rally was headlined by actor Johnny Depp and Damien Echols, who spent nearly 18 years on Arkansas’ death row before he and two other men, known as the West Memphis Three, were freed in 2011 in a plea deal in which they maintained their innocence.

“I didn’t want to come back, but when I heard about the conveyor belt of death that the politicians were trying to set in motion, I guess I knew I wouldn’t be able to live with myself if I didn’t come back and try to do something,” said Echols, who now lives in New York.

Arkansas has not executed an inmate since 2005 because of drug shortages and legal challenges.