An aggressive effort by the state of Arkansas to carry out its first executions since 2005 stalled for the second time this week as courts blocked lethal injections planned for Thursday, prompting Gov. Asa Hutchinson to express frustration at legal delaying tactics.
While the latest court rulings could be overturned, Arkansas now faces an uphill battle to execute any inmates before the end of April, when one of its lethal injection drugs expires.
The state originally set eight executions over an 11-day period in April, which would have been the most by a state in such a compressed period since the US Supreme Court reinstated the death penalty in 1976. But Arkansas has faced a wave of legal challenges.
The first two inmates scheduled for execution on Monday were spared – one of them by the US Supreme Court minutes before his death warrant expired – and one of the two rulings on Wednesday could scuttle the entire schedule.
Pulaski County Circuit Judge Alice Gray blocked the state from using the drug vecuronium bromide, siding with McKesson Corp., which had argued that it sold Arkansas the drug for medical use, not executions. The company said it would suffer harm financially and to its reputation if the executions were carried out.
Judd Deere, a spokesman for Arkansas Attorney General Leslie Rutledge, said the state will appeal that ruling.
In another setback for the state on Wednesday, the Arkansas Supreme Court voted 4 to 3 to grant a stay of execution for Stacey Johnson, one of the inmates scheduled to die Thursday, drawing a rebuke from death penalty supporter Gov. Hutchinson. Ledell Lee, who had also been scheduled for execution Thursday, is still seeking a stay in a separate case.
"When I set the dates, I knew there could be delays in one or more of the cases, but I expected the courts to allow the juries' sentences to be carried out since each case had been reviewed multiple times by the Arkansas Supreme Court, which affirmed the guilt of each," Hutchinson said in a statement.
Four of the eight inmates originally on Hutchinson's schedule have now received stays of execution, leaving four remaining who still could be put to death.
It was unclear if Attorney General Leslie Rutledge would appeal the stay of execution for Johnson to the US Supreme Court after the state lost an appeal to the high court on a case involving another inmate Monday night.
Mr. Deere, the attorney general's spokesman, said the state was reviewing its options regarding Johnson's case.
In the drug case, a state prison official testified that he deliberately ordered the drug last year in a way that there wouldn't be a paper trail, relying on phone calls and text messages. Arkansas Department of Correction Deputy Director Rory Griffin said he didn't keep records of the texts, but McKesson salesman Tim Jenkins did. In text messages from Mr. Jenkins' phone, which came up at Wednesday's court hearing, there is no mention that the drug would be used in executions.
Pharmaceuticals companies and other suppliers have objected to their drugs being used in executions and have been trying to stop states from getting supplies for lethal injections.