VARNER, Ark. – Arkansas officials vowed to carry out a double execution later this week after the U.S. Supreme Court delivered a setback to the state's plan to resume capital punishment for the first time in nearly 12 years with a ruling sparing an inmate just minutes before his death warrant was set to expire.
The court's decision was the second time Don Davis has been granted a reprieve shortly before execution — he came within hours of death in 2010. It capped a chaotic day of legal wrangling in state and federal courts Monday as Arkansas tried to clear obstacles to carrying out its first executions since 2005.
Gov. Asa Hutchinson had set an aggressive schedule of eight executions by the end of April, when the state's supply of midazolam, a key lethal injection drug, expires. If the state had been able to move ahead with its 11-day execution plan, it would have been the most inmates put to death by any state in such a short period since the U.S. Supreme Court reinstated the death penalty in 1976.
The executions of Davis and Bruce Ward were supposed to be the first two, but Ward received a stay from the Arkansas Supreme Court on Monday and the state did not appeal the decision. The state did challenge a stay granted to Davis, but the last-minute U.S. Supreme Court ruling ensured that he would not enter the death chamber Monday.
Attorneys had requested the stay while the U.S. Supreme Court takes up a separate case concerning inmates' access to independent mental health experts.
"The Arkansas Supreme Court recognized that executing either man, before the Court answers this question ... would be profoundly arbitrary and unjust," Scott Braden, an assistant federal public defender for the inmates, said Monday.
Davis had already been served a last meal of fried chicken, rolls, beans, mashed potatoes and strawberry cake, and witnesses were being moved toward the execution chamber when the Supreme Court ruled just minutes before his death warrant expired at midnight.
Davis was sentenced to death for the 1990 death of Jane Daniel in Rogers, Arkansas. The woman was killed in her home after Davis broke in and shot her with a .44-caliber revolver he found there.
Despite the setbacks, Attorney General Leslie Rutledge said Arkansas would press ahead with other planned executions, including two set for Thursday — Ledell Lee and Stacey Johnson.
"There are five scheduled executions remaining with nothing preventing them from occurring, but I will continue to respond to any and all legal challenges brought by the prisoners," Rutledge said.
Lawyers for the inmates were not immediately available after the U.S. Supreme Court ruling.
Earlier in the day, the state had cleared two of the main obstacles to resuming executions. The 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals reversed a federal judge's ruling blocking the executions over the use of midazolam, a sedative used in flawed executions in other states. The state Supreme Court also lifted a lower court ruling preventing the state from using another lethal injection drug that a supplier said was sold to be used for medical purposes, not executions.
The high court's order sparing Davis offered no explanation, but none of the justices voted in favor of lifting the stay. Monday marked the first day that the U.S. Supreme Court was in session with new Justice Neil Gorsuch on the bench.
Arkansas enacted a law two years ago keeping secret the source of its lethal injection drugs, a move officials said was necessary to find new supplies. Despite the secrecy measure, prison officials have said it will be very difficult to find a supplier willing to sell Arkansas midazolam after its current stock expires.