A state Supreme Court voted Wednesday to halt the execution of an inmate facing lethal injection yesterday, two days after justices stayed the executions of two other inmates. The series of 4-3 decisions blocking the start of what had been an unprecedented plan to execute eight men in 11 days were only the latest in recent years preventing this deeply Republican state from resuming capital punishment.
The possibility that justices could continue sparing the lives of the remaining killers scheduled to die this month has left death penalty supporters including Republican Gov. Asa Hutchinson frustrated and critical of the high court.
"I know the families of the victims are anxious for a clear-cut explanation from the majority as to how they came to this conclusion and how there appears to be no end to the court's review," Hutchinson said in a statement after the Wednesday ruling.
Since the last execution in 2005, the state Supreme Court has at least twice forced Arkansas to rewrite its death penalty law. One of those cases spared Don Davis, who again received a stay Monday night. The legal setbacks at one point prompted the state's previous attorney general, Dustin McDaniel, to declare Arkansas' death penalty system "broken."
But unlike the earlier decisions, this stay came from a court that had shifted to the right in recent elections. Outside groups and the candidates spent more than $1.6 million last year on a pair of high court races that were among the most fiercely fought judicial campaigns in the state's history. Arkansas was among a number of states where conservative groups spent millions on such efforts.
The candidates backed by the conservative groups won both races. One of those winners voted for Monday's night stay.
"I have ultimate respect for the court and I'm not going to question individual decisions but I would say there is frustration among the Legislature as to the court's continued refusal to allow an execution to go through," said Sen. Jeremy Hutchinson, who chairs the Senate Judiciary Committee and is the nephew of the governor.
The three stays, along with one granted earlier, have whittled down the execution list to four, unless the U.S. Supreme Court allows Arkansas to move ahead with Stacey Johnson's Thursday execution. Arkansas officials are trying to carry out the executions before their supply of midazolam, one of the execution drugs used, expires at the end of April.
It's unclear whether the new execution obstacles would have any political fallout for the court. Only one of the seven justices is up for election next year, and judicial rules prevent candidates from announcing their bids until next month. Polling has shown strong support for the death penalty in Arkansas.