Arkansas Rush: Why the State Wants to Execute So Quickly

Note: Of the 4 Black and 4 White Inmates Originally Slated for Execution, all but 1 of the 4 Whites have been Stayed (for now).

by: P. Kenneth Burns Special to the AFRO
/ (Arkansas Department of Correction via AP) /
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The execution of Ledell Lee in Little Rock, Ark., was the latest in an effort by the state to pursue several executions in the span of a couple of weeks.  That’s because one of the drugs used for lethal injection is set to expire at the end of April.

This undated photo provided by the Arkansas Department of Correction shows death-row inmate Ledell Lee (now deceased). A ruling from the state Supreme Court allowing officials to use a lethal injection drug Midazolam (shown right) that a supplier says was misleadingly obtained cleared the way for Arkansas to execute Ledell Lee on Thursday, April 20, 2017, although he still had pending requests for reprieve. (Arkansas Department of Correction via AP)

The state scheduled eight executions before one of the drugs, Midazolam reaches its expiration date on April 30.  The drug was not used in Arkansas executions until Lee, 51, was put to death on April 20 – the first execution carried out in the state since 2005.

Midazolam – one of three drugs used for lethal injection including potassium chloride and vecuronium bromide – is used to slow or stop breathing during surgery.

Legal and pharmaceutical experts said the methods Arkansas used to obtain the drugs needed for lethal injection raise concerns about the state’s respect for contracts between private businesses.

The company that sold vecuronium bromide to the state, McKesson Corp. accused the Arkansas Department of Corrections of circumventing company rules to acquire the drug for lethal executions and not for medical purposes, as the state agency reportedly told the company.  

“Upon learning that [the department] was potentially holding the product for lethal injection purposes, McKesson immediately requested and was assured by ADC that the product would be returned,” according to a company statement on April 13.

Vecuronium bromide is used as a muscle relaxer during surgery.

The company was granted a restraining order preventing the state from using their drug for lethal injection on April 19.  But that order was stayed by the Arkansas Supreme Court the next day.

Two men were originally scheduled to be executed.  Another inmate, Stacey Johnson, received a stay of execution 24 hours prior to when he was set to be put to death.

Nina Morrison, senior staff attorney with the Innocence Project who represented both men, said Lee and Johnson wanted a chance to prove their innocence through DNA testing before they were put to death.

“There is no reason why one man is alive today and one is not other than sheer arbitrariness and a rush to execution,” Morrison told the AFRO. “It’s hard to put into words how confusing and outrageous this whole process was.”

Both Lee and Johnson are African-American men who were convicted of killing White women.

Lee was convicted and sentenced to death for the 1993 murder of Debra Reese.  Prosecutors said Lee strangled Reese and beat her to death with a tire thumper.  Lee was found guilty in 1996 and subsequent appeals to the conviction and sentence have been upheld by state and federal courts.  Prosecutors also called Lee “a psychosexual serial rapist,” who committed violent crimes against five women ranging in age from 17 to 70, according to KARK-TV.

Johnson, 47, was found guilty of the 1993 killing Carol Heath.  Heath was strangled, beaten and had her throat slit.  Johnson’s initial conviction was overturned by the Arkansas Supreme Court.  The court ruled jurors should not have been told that Heath’s daughter—then 6 and deemed incompetent—picked Johnson out of a photo lineup.  Johnson was retried and convicted three years later.

Johnson has a reprieve—for now.  A hearing on whether his request for DNA testing will be granted is to be scheduled after his death warrant expires.  But there is no guarantee that the testing will take place.

“Even if a judge says [Johnson is entitled to DNA testing,] the state can appeal and probably will appeal,” said Morrison, the Innocence Project attorney.

In addition to Johnson, Jason McGehee, Bruce Earl Ward and Don Davis Jr. – all White men – received stays.  Ward and Davis were to be the first executions scheduled for April 17 before winning legal challenges.

Two other Black men – Marcel Williams and Kenneth Williams – remain scheduled to die next week.

Marcel Williams, 46, was convicted of suffocating a young White mother of two after raping her in 1994.  Prosecutors say Williams abducted her when she stopped for gas in Jacksonville then drove her to various ATMs and had her take out about $350. Police found the woman’s hosiery and lunch cooler at a storage facility, then found her beaten and bound body in a park two weeks later.

Williams confessed to killing the woman. The jury deliberated about 30 minutes. He is scheduled for execution April 24.

Kenneth Williams, 38, was serving a life sentence for the 1998 death of a Black University of Arkansas-Pine Bluff cheerleader Dominque Hurd. He initiated an escaped in 1999 by hiding in a container of hog slop that was being ferried from the prison kitchen to a prison hog farm outside the main gates.

After making his escape, Williams killed Cecil Boren, who lived near the prison. After stealing a truck and during a chase in southern Missouri the next day, Williams crashed into a water-delivery truck, killing the driver, before police captured him. Thus during his escape, Williams was responsible for taking the lives of 2 additional people. Williams is scheduled for execution April 27.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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