U.S. judge halts one of eight unprecedented Arkansas executions

FILE PHOTO - Handout photos of inmates scheduled to be executed by lethal injection beginning April 17 in Arkansas

By Jon Herskovitz

(Reuters) – A U.S. judge on Thursday halted one of the eight executions Arkansas plans over 11 days in the second half of April, saying the expedited schedule does not allow proper time for considering that inmate’s clemency.

U.S. District Judge J.P. Marshall ordered a halt to the planned April 27 execution of convicted murderer Jason McGehee, allowing the other seven executions to go on as planned.

The state’s Parole Board issued a non-binding ruling on Wednesday that McGehee should be spared from execution because none of his co-defendants were sentenced to death and McGehee has been an exemplary inmate during his 19 years in prison.

The attorney general’s office is studying whether it will appeal the judge’s order.

Republican Governor Asa Hutchinson has final say on whether to accept or reject the board’s clemency recommendation.

Hutchinson set the schedule for four double executions to be held on April 17, 20, 24 and 27, saying the expedited schedule was needed because a difficult-to-obtain drug in the state’s lethal injection mix expires at the end of the month.

No state has executed as many people in as short a period of time since the U.S. Supreme Court reinstated the death penalty in 1976, let alone held four double executions in less than two weeks, according to the Death Penalty Information Center, a non-profit agency examining U.S. capital punishment.

The inmates have filed petitions being heard before two judges at the U.S. district court in Little Rock.

In one complaint before Judge Marshall, the inmates argue the state’s rapid execution schedule, given at late notice, does not allow for enough time for Arkansas to comply with its own laws and regulations regarding the clemency process. 

The other motion contends that the state’s rush to the death chamber amounts to cruel and unusual punishment, violates the inmates’ right to counsel and violates their right to access the courts and counsel during the execution process.

A hearing is scheduled to begin on Monday at the U.S. court over that filing.

The state contends its schedule is lawful and should be implemented so that it can mete out the punishments due the convicted murderers.

Several former supervisors of state prisons across the country criticized Arkansas’ move as reckless. In interviews with Reuters, they said the accelerated schedule will heighten the risk of errors and the psychological toll on prison staff.

(Reporting by Jon Herskovitz in Austin, Texas; Additional reporting by Steve Barnes in Little Rock; Editing by Steve Orlofsky)