Arkansas execution delayed as Supreme Court refuses to overrule state court

Posted at 7:46 AM, Apr 18, 2017
and last updated 2017-04-18 07:46:07-04

An Arkansas death row inmate who had been scheduled for execution Monday was temporarily spared after decisions from the US Supreme Court and Arkansas Supreme Court.

On Monday evening, Don Davis had been given what was to be his last meal at the Cummins Unit, the Arkansas prison that houses the state’s execution chamber. As midnight approached, his fate remained unclear pending further court action.

Davis had been one of eight Arkansas inmates scheduled to die this month.

His attorney sought a stay of execution, and on Monday, the Arkansas Supreme Court granted a delay in the executions of Davis and another inmate, Bruce Ward.

But Arkansas Attorney General Leslie Rutledge asked the US Supreme Court to overrule the state court to proceed with Davis’ execution.

As minutes ticked toward 1 a.m. ET (midnight CT) — when Davis’ execution warrant was to expire — the US high court issued a statement: “The application to vacate the stay of execution of sentence of death entered by the Arkansas Supreme Court on April 17, 2017, presented to Justice (Samuel) Alito and by him referred to the Court is denied.”

The execution would have been the first in Arkansas since 2005.

Davis was among eight Arkansas inmates facing execution in 11 days in a packed schedule set by the state. The number of executions in such a short amount of time had been described as “unprecedented” by a group that monitors US executions, and it unleashed a flurry of legal actions.

Arkansas had set the schedule because its supply of a lethal injection drug, midazolam, expires on May 1.

Rutledge said the court’s decision is “heartbreaking that the family of Jane Daniel has once again seen justice delayed,” referring to the victim in Davis’ case.

He had been sentenced to death for capital murder.

“Davis was convicted of his crimes in 1992, and my office took every action it could today to see that justice was carried out. Ultimately, the US Supreme Court has the final say and has decided not to lift the stay at this time,” she said in a statement.

State says it wants justice for victims’ families

Davis’ execution warrant has now expired.

Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson can set a new execution date for him, but it can’t happen for another 30 days, so Davis wouldn’t be executed before the state’s drug supply expires at the end of April.

Hutchinson expressed disappointment but vowed to continue efforts.

“While this has been an exhausting day for all involved, tomorrow we will continue to fight back on last-minute appeals and efforts to block justice for the victims’ families,” he said in a statement.

Recap of latest legal decisions

The last-minute Supreme Court decision came after a day of frenzied legal action over Davis and the other Arkansas inmates.

The state’s effort to carry out the executions hit a legal setback Monday as the Arkansas Supreme Court put two executions on hold and the US Supreme Court refused to intervene in its favor.

• Execution of two inmates are temporarily on hold.

The high court stayed the executions of Davis and Ward. The inmates’ counsel requested stays of execution until a US Supreme Court ruling on an upcoming case concerning inmate access to independent mental health experts. The justices are set to hold oral arguments next week.

In a statement, Scott Braden, the attorney for both Davis and Ward, said his clients were “denied access to independent mental health experts, even though they clearly demonstrated that mental health issues would be significant factors at their trials.

“Mr. Ward has severe and life-long schizophrenia, breaks with reality, and delusions, such as seeing demon dogs at the foot of his bed since childhood. Mr. Davis has organic brain damage, intellectual disability, a history of head injuries, fetal alcohol syndrome, and other severe mental health conditions.”

But Arkansas had two other legal victories that could allow the remaining executions to proceed:

• Previous decision to halt all eight executions is overturned.

The 8th US Circuit Court of Appeals overturned a Saturday ruling by a federal judge that temporarily halted all eight executions.

The lower court had ruled the prisoners will likely succeed in demonstrating the state’s proposed method of lethal injection is unconstitutional. But the appeals court said the use of the method of execution, which includes midazolam, did not create undue severe pain.

• Court rules vecuronium bromide can be used in executions.

Late Monday, the Arkansas Supreme Court also overturned a temporary restraining order by a state judge that prevented Arkansas from using vecuronium bromide it had purchased from distributor McKesson Medical-Surgical in executions. The company had argued the medication was not meant to be used in capital punishment.