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Judge calls off one of eight Arkansas executions set for 11-day window

An undated file photo of Jason McGehee. (Arkansas Department of Correction via AP)

A federal judge on Thursday stayed one of eight executions Arkansas has scheduled during 11 days this month, postponing it because a state parole board said it would recommend changing that inmate’s sentence to life in prison without parole.

The ruling comes as Arkansas has drawn national scrutiny for setting so many executions in such a short time frame, which is unprecedented in the modern history of the American death penalty.

Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson (R) scheduled the executions in a series of proclamations earlier this year. While he has acknowledged being uneasy with the scheduling, Hutchinson said he was obligated to set the dates because one of the state’s lethal injection drugs will expire at the end of the month.

Arkansas wants to get back in the execution business

“In order to fulfill my duty as Governor, which is to carry out the lawful sentence imposed by a jury, it is necessary to schedule the executions prior to the expiration of that drug,” Hutchinson said in a statement, alluding to the ongoing shortage of the drugs. “It is uncertain as to whether another drug can be obtained, and the families of the victims do not need to live with continued uncertainty after decades of review.”

The inmates facing execution have filed a series of legal challenges in federal and state courts.

U.S. District Judge D.P. Marshall Jr., in his ruling Thursday, said that Arkansas officials could not execute Jason McGehee until after the state parole board notifies state officials and the victim’s relatives. McGehee was sentenced to death for his involvement in the fatal assault that killed John Melbourne Jr. in 1996, according to court records.

Because state law requires the parole board to take at least 30 days before sending the recommendation to the governor, officials would not be able to execute McGehee this month, said Julie Vandiver, an assistant federal public defender in Little Rock and one of the attorneys representing McGehee and other death-row inmates.

While Vandiver said she believes the parole board made the right decision and hopes Hutchinson would agree with their recommendation, she said it still did not change the broader issues surrounding the frenzied execution pace.

“It is an unprecedented situation for any lawyer to have so many clients under a death warrant at one time,” she said in a telephone interview. “This is not the way that this situation usually works. The system is not set up to handle this. We’re not set up to handle this. So yes, it is very difficult to manage the competing concerns in all of these cases.”

Executions and death sentences plummeted in 2016 as capital punishment declined nationwide

In his ruling Thursday, Marshall said he would revisit the case of another inmate scheduled for execution this month, noting that the parole board has not released a recommendation in that case. That inmate, Jack H. Jones Jr., has a hearing set for Friday.

Arkansas Attorney General Leslie Rutledge (R) vowed to continue fighting legal challenges from inmates facing executions.

“The victims’ families have waited far too long to see justice for their loved ones, and today’s decision from Judge Marshall allows all but one of the scheduled executions to move forward,” a spokesman for Rutledge said in a statement. “Attorney General Rutledge will respond to any and all challenges that might occur between now and the executions as the prisoners continue to use all available means to delay their lawful sentences.”

If the seven scheduled executions are carried out, it would still be unprecedented, said Robert Dunham, executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center. According to his group’s records, the most executions in an 11-day period occurred in Texas, which put six inmates to death during that span in 1997 and again in 2000.

“This is not a normal execution schedule, and we know that because no one has attempted anything close to this in the modern history of the United States,” he said Thursday.

Dunham noted that Arkansas had scheduled all eight executions on four days, setting two lethal injections back-to-back on those days.

McGehee was scheduled to be executed on April 27, the final day of the executions. A commutation request from Kenneth Williams, who is also scheduled to die by lethal injection that day, has been rejected by the parole board, as were requests by three of the other inmates scheduled to be executed.

McGehee’s fate will rest with Hutchinson, who will have to decide whether to accept the recommendation; a spokesman for Hutchinson said Thursday that the governor has not yet decided.

“He will carefully review this application and the board’s recommendation as he does with all of them,” the spokesman said in a statement.

Further reading:

Florida governor reassigns 21 more murder cases as part of death-penalty dispute with prosecutor

The executions Justice Sotomayor calls ‘horrifying deaths’

Texas sues FDA over lethal injection drugs confiscated in 2015