Days before Arkansas is set to begin an unprecedented series of lethal injections, the state’s Supreme Court on Friday granted an emergency stay of execution for one of the first inmates scheduled to die.
The Arkansas Supreme Court announced it had granted Bruce Ward’s petition for an emergency stay of execution with an order Friday afternoon. The court did not explain the decision, which is the second time this month a court has stayed one of the state’s planned executions.
Ward was scheduled to be executed on Monday evening in the second of two executions that night. He is among eight death-row inmates who were scheduled to be executed over an 11-day period this month. This hurried timetable has prompted criticism, but state officials have said it is necessary because one of their lethal injection drugs is set to expire and they worry about obtaining more amid a shortage.
A spokesman for Arkansas Attorney General Leslie Rutledge (R) said Friday evening that she was weighing how to respond to the stay.
“Bruce Ward was convicted of capital murder in 1990 and the State Supreme Court has previously upheld his conviction,” Judd Deere, a spokesman for Rutledge, said in a statement. “The court granted a stay of Ward’s scheduled execution today but offered no reason for doing so. Attorney General Rutledge is evaluating options on how to proceed.”
Ward, 60, was sentenced to death in October 1990 after being convicted of killing Rebecca Doss, an 18-year-old convenience store clerk, according to media reports. In a petition to the Arkansas Supreme Court, Ward’s attorneys described him as a diagnosed schizophrenic who has spent decades in solitary confinement without treatment for his mental illness and argued that he was not competent to be executed.
Scott Braden, an assistant federal defender representing Ward, praised the court for its decision Friday.
“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,” Braden said in a statement. “He deserves a day in court for that, but in Arkansas the rules do not permit that. Instead, they give the power to director of the department of corrections to decide whether the department can execute someone or not. That is both unfair and unconstitutional.”
If Ward’s stay remains and he is not executed this month, Arkansas would be looking at executing six inmates in 11 days — no longer an unprecedented time-frame, but one that has not been seen in this country in nearly two decades.
According to the Death Penalty Information Center, a Washington-based group, Texas twice executed six prisoners in a 10-day span — in May 1997 and then again in January 2000.
Ward is also one of several inmates participating in a federal lawsuit seeking to have the executions stayed by declaring the execution schedule — and the planned lethal-injection — unconstitutional.
Arkansas has drawn national scrutiny and criticism since scheduling its executions, which would be the state’s first since 2005. Civil liberties advocates and two dozen former corrections officials nationwide have expressed concerns that the schedule — which originally included two executions, back-to-back, on four nights close together — would increase the chances of a mistake.
State officials argue that further delays in any of these executions would postpone justice for the victims’ relatives. All of the inmates were convicted of capital murder and sentenced by the year 2000. The executions are scheduled to begin Monday, April 17, and run through Thursday, April 27.
In a recent report expressing concerns about the upcoming executions, the Fair Punishment Project at Harvard Law School noted that some of the men — including Ward — appear to suffer from intellectual impairments.
Drug companies have recently joined the fray, with two manufacturers filing a brief this week arguing that the state had improperly obtained their drugs and planned to use them. Two other companies — including the pharmaceutical giant Pfizer — also issued sharply critical statements and called for their drugs not to be used in any executions.
These companies have accused Arkansas officials of knowingly sidestepping the systems in place to keep their drugs from being used in executions and refusing to respond to repeated attempts to contact the state’s governor, attorney general and Department of Corrections. Spokesmen for Rutledge and the Department of Corrections declined to comment on those accounts; a spokesman for the governor did not respond to a request for comment.
Ward’s is the second of the eight scheduled executions to have been called off since Gov. Asa Hutchinson (R) set the dates. Earlier this month, a federal judge stayed the execution of another inmate because a state parole board said it would recommend changing that inmate’s sentence to life in prison without parole.
Under Arkansas state law, the parole board must take at least 30 days before sending the recommendation to the governor, which meant officials would be unable to execute that inmate during the period before the lethal drug expires, according to Julie Vandiver, an assistant federal public defender in Little Rock and one of the attorneys representing McGehee and other death-row inmates.