For the first time since 2005, Arkansas executed a death-row inmate. Now the state is turning its attention to three more executions planned for the coming days.
Arkansas has been the center of a frenzied battle over the death penalty since authorities there announced plans to execute eight inmates during an 11-day span ending next Thursday. Court orders have halted four of those scheduled lethal injections so far, preventing what would have been a pace of executions unmatched in modern American capital punishment, a time-frame officials said was needed because one of their lethal-injection drugs will expire at the end of April.
Late Thursday night, Arkansas executed Ledell Lee, 51, who was sentenced to death in 1995 for killing Debra Reese. She was fatally beaten in her home two years earlier. Lee had long denied involvement in her death, and he filed court documents seeking DNA testing to prove his innocence.
The lethal injection was pushed late into the night by a volley of petitions Lee filed in a federal appeals court and the U.S. Supreme Court, which delayed the execution for hours as justices weighed his requests. The Supreme Court denied requests from Lee and several other death-row inmates and then rejected late appeals Lee filed, allowing the execution to proceed.
When the high court rebuffed an appeal from several Arkansas inmates seeking stays of execution, the 5-to-4 decision marked the first known vote of consequence for new Justice Neil M. Gorsuch, who joined the body this month and sided with conservatives in rejecting the request.
None of the justices who denied the stay request explained their decision. Justice Stephen G. Breyer, who has previously described the death penalty as “capricious, random, indeed, arbitrary,” issued a dissent from that decision, focusing on Arkansas’ stated desire to carry out executions before the expiration date for midazolam, a sedative used in some lethal injections.
“I have previously noted the arbitrariness with which executions are carried out in this country,” he wrote. “And I have pointed out how the arbitrary nature of the death penalty system, as presently administered, runs contrary to the very purpose of a ‘rule of law.’ The cases now before us reinforce that point.”
After the stay requests were rejected by the high court and the federal appeals court, Arkansas officials proceeded with the execution, which began at 11:44 p.m. at a state prison about 75 miles southeast of Little Rock. Lee was pronounced dead at 11:56 p.m., according to the Arkansas Department of Corrections. The execution warrant for Lee, the seventh person executed in the United States this year, expired at midnight.
“Arkansas’s decision to rush through the execution of Mr. Lee just because its supply of lethal drugs are expiring at the end of the month denied him the opportunity to conduct DNA testing that could have proven his innocence,” Nina Morrison, a lawyer with the Innocence Project and an attorney for Lee, said in a statement after the execution. “While reasonable people can disagree on whether death is an appropriate form of punishment, no one should be executed when there is a possibility that person is innocent.”
Arkansas Attorney General Leslie Rutledge (R), who fought in court for Lee’s execution and others to proceed, said she hopes the lethal injection provided help to Reese’s relatives.
“Tonight the lawful sentence of a jury which has been upheld by the courts through decades of challenges has been carried out,” she said in a statement. “The family of the late Debra Reese, who was brutally murdered with a tire thumper after being targeted because she was home alone, has waited more than 24 years to see justice done. I pray this lawful execution helps bring closure for the Reese family.”
A second execution also planned for Thursday night was blocked by the Arkansas Supreme Court, which narrowly decided to stay the lethal injection of Stacey E. Johnson without explanation. The 47-year-old inmate was sentenced to death in 1994 for the murder of Carol Jean Heath, a woman brutally killed in her home. Johnson has sought post-conviction DNA testing to prove his innocence.
Rutledge does not plan to appeal that decision, a spokesman said, so Johnson’s execution will not occur before the execution drug expires on April 30. This makes him the third Arkansas inmate this week — and fourth overall scheduled for an April execution — to have their execution blocked by a court.
The Arkansas Supreme Court on Monday stayed the state’s first two planned executions, a decision the U.S. Supreme Court let stand in orders that night. Earlier this month, a federal judge stayed one of the executions scheduled for next Thursday, because a state parole board recommended commuting his sentence to life in prison without parole.
Gov. Asa Hutchinson (R), who set the dates, has defended the timetable as necessary to carry out lawful executions before the drug expires. Death-row inmates and their attorneys have criticized the pace and the state’s execution method, while former corrections officials cautioned that the rushed schedule heightens the risk of a botched lethal injection. Drug companies also weighed in, trying unsuccessfully to block the state from using their products.
More appeals are expected before the next executions, with two scheduled back-to-back Monday and the last on the calendar set for Thursday. Rutledge has vowed “to respond to any and all legal challenges brought by the prisoners.”
“The families have waited far too long to see justice, and I will continue to make that a priority,” she said in a statement.
J.R. Davis, a spokesman for Hutchinson, said that as a former federal prosecutor, the governor knew challenges would follow after he scheduled the executions.
“He knows this process,” Davis said in an interview Friday. “He knew when he set those eight dates that it would trigger some litigation. He was very aware of that. He also knew there was a chance that not all of them would go forward, and that’s where we are right now. So it’s not surprising.”
Davis said that Hutchinson takes the process seriously and had a responsibility to schedule the dates and have the process moving forward, noting that the governor has “no doubt” about the guilt of the inmates whose executions he scheduled.
“You set them because you hope that justice is carried out,” Davis said. “There is not a more grave responsibility than the one he carried out last night. But he also knows it was the right decision and he’s confident in that decision. And for the first time since 1993, the family of Debra Reese will have justice and closure.”