Federal judge blocks executions in Arkansas

Top row, left to right: Bruce Ward, Don Davis, Ledell Lee, Stacy Johnson, Jack Jones, bottom row left to right: Marcel Williams, Kenneth Williams and Jason Mcgehee are shown in these booking photo provided March 21, 2017. The eight were scheduled to be executed by lethal injection in Arkansas, beginning April 17, 2017. Courtesy Arkansas Department of Corrections/Handout via Reuters

A federal judge has blocked Arkansas from executing six men in 11 days, which was scheduled to start the day after Easter Sunday.

U.S. District Judge Kristine Baker released her decision Saturday morning, concluding: "The Court finds that plaintiffs are entitled to a preliminary injunction based on their method of execution claim under the Eighth Amendment."

Arkansas Attorney General Leslie Rutledge plans to appeal the federal judge's decision, Judd Deere, Rutledge's communications director, said in a written statement.

"It is unfortunate that a U.S. District Judge has chosen to side with the convicted prisoners in one of their many last-minute attempts to delay justice," Deere said. "This decision is significantly out of step with precedent from the Eighth Circuit and the U.S. Supreme Court. Attorney General Rutledge plans to immediately appeal to the Eighth Circuit and ask that today's injunction imposed by the district court be lifted."

Earlier this month, Arkansas Governor Asa Hutchinson planned to execute eight men in 11 days, before the state's supply of lethal injection drugs expired. The men were scheduled to die two per day, on April 17, April 20, April 24 and April 27. No state has executed so many men so quickly in the last four decades, Robert Dunham from the Death Penalty Information Center told the NewsHour.

Before Saturday's decision, the executions of two men — Jason McGehee and Bruce Ward — were blocked in separate decisions. The latest ruling from Baker applies to the eight originally scheduled to die, plus one more man whose execution had not yet been scheduled.

Six out of 10 Arkansans favor the death penalty, according to an April 4 poll of 550 Arkansas voters conducted by Talk Business & Politics and Hendrix College. And among those respondents, half said they supported the state's original plan to execute eight men in 10 days, while an additional 17 percent said it made no difference if Gov. Asa Hutchinson rushed the executions before the state's supply of lethal injection drugs expired this month. Hendrix College political scientist Jay Barth designed the poll and said the results didn't surprise him.

"Arkansans have shown a consistent commitment to the death penalty, although Arkansas has employed the death penalty less than surrounding states," Barth said. "This polling is pretty clear that Arkansans across the board are supportive."

Nationwide, half of Americans are in favor of the death penalty, according to a recent Pew Research Center survey, but public support has declined since the Supreme Court's decision in Gregg v. Georgia (1976) reinstated capital punishment.

On Friday, the Arkansas Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty organized a protest on the steps of the Arkansas State Capitol in Little Rock. Roughly 100 demonstrators showed up and heard remarks from Damien Echols, who was convicted and sentenced to die by age 19, along with Jason Baldwin and Jessie Misskelley, for the brutal 1993 murder of three Boy Scouts in West Memphis, Arkansas.

Nearly two decades later, DNA testing proved Echols, Baldwin and Misskelley played no role in the killings. They all were released from prison, and Echols moved out of state.

"When I heard about the conveyor belt of death that the politicians were trying to set in motion, I knew I couldn't live with myself if I didn't come back and try to do something," Echols said Friday.

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