Arkansas carries out execution for 1st time in over 11 years

Arkansas carries out execution for 1st time in over 11 years

Arkansas executed its first inmate in over 11 years on Thursday after a protracted legal battle that questioned aspects of the use of the death penalty in the United States.

Ledell Lee, 51, was pronounced dead at 11:56 p.m. local time at the state's death chamber in its Cummins Unit prison, a Department of Corrections spokesman said.

Lee did not make a final statement.

Lee was convicted and sentenced to death for beating Debra Reese to death with a tire iron in 1993. Reese's relatives were at the Cummins Unit and told media Lee deserved to die for a crime that ripped their lives apart.

Lawyers for Lee, who had spent more than 20 years on death row, had filed numerous motions in various courts ahead of the lethal injection that had put the process on hold.

Lee had maintained his innocence for years and was seeking DNA tests his lawyers said could prove his innocence. He was the first person in a group of what had been eight men Arkansas originally planned to execute in 11 days, the most of any state in as short a period since the U.S. Supreme Court reinstated the death penalty in 1976.

Courts have halted four of those executions.

The state's plan prompted an unprecedented flurry of legal filings that argued the process should be halted, citing problems with U.S. death chamber protocols and lethal injection drug mixes.

Back-to-back executions set for Monday were halted indefinitely.

Lawyers for the eight inmates, including Lee, had argued the state's rush to the death chamber amounted to cruel and unusual punishment, violated the inmates' right to counsel and their right to access the courts and counsel during the execution process.

The U.S. Supreme Court denied the petitions for the group. One of them was a 5-4 decision in which new Justice Neil Gorsuch sided with the four other conservative justices in denying the motion, while the court's liberals dissented.

Republican Governor Asa Hutchinson set the execution schedule because one of the three drugs used in Arkansas executions, the sedative midazolam, expires at month's end. In a dissenting opinion,

The valium-like sedative has been used in troubled executions in Oklahoma and Arizona where inmates who were supposed to be insensate were seen twisting in pain on death chamber gurneys.

Justice Stephen Breyer said he took issue with Arkansas trying to use the drugs before their expiration date.

"In my view, that factor, when considered as a determining factor separating those who live from those who die, is close to random," he wrote.

States try to import other drugs

The execution came the same day that the Food and Drug Administration notified Texas and Arizona that more than a thousand vials of drugs they ordered for executions in their states from India in 2015, and seized by U.S. Customs, will not be released to them.

The confiscated shipments of sodium thiopental have been refused on the basis that the detained drugs appear to be unapproved new drugs and misbranded drugs, FDA press officer Lyndsay Meyer said. 

"It has taken almost two years for the Food and Drug Administration to reach a decision, which we believe is flawed. TDCJ fully complied with the steps necessary to lawfully import the shipment," the Texas Department of Criminal Justice said in a statement. "We are exploring all options to remedy the unjustified seizure," it said.

Arizona officials did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Texas sued in January for the drug's release, saying in its lawsuit that it was importing the sodium thiopental for legal executions. Sodium thiopental renders a person unconscious and was a staple of lethal injection mixes but has not been made in the United States for several years.

Nebraska, South Dakota, Ohio, Arizona and Texas tried to import sodium thiopental from India between 2010 and 2015, according to court records and news media reports, but federal regulators blocked the moves.

Previous attempts to import the drug have also been blocked by federal courts after challenges from death row inmates.