Arkansas judge halts 8 executions as inmates challenge law
LITTLE ROCK, Ark. (AP) -- An Arkansas judge on Friday halted the upcoming executions of eight death row inmates, dealing a blow to the state's efforts to begin putting prisoners to death for the first time in a decade.
Pulaski County Circuit Court Judge Wendell Griffen issued a stay for all eight of the state's scheduled executions, the first two of which were set for Oct. 21. In a separate filing, he denied most of the state's request to dismiss the case and said within a few days he would schedule a hearing in the inmates' ongoing case.
The inmates are challenging a new Arkansas law that allows the state to withhold any information that could publicly identify the manufacturers or sellers of its execution drugs.
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Joshua Lee, a lawyer for the inmates, argued that the new secrecy law put them at risk of enduring unconstitutional pain and suffering during their executions because the drugs' safety and effectiveness couldn't be vetted. He also said the state agreed in a prior settlement to reveal the drug information to the inmates before their executions.
Assistant Attorney General Jennifer Merritt argued that the secrecy law is constitutional and that the state wasn't bound by the settlement terms because of the law's subsequent passage.
But Griffen ruled that proceeding with the executions, as scheduled, would unfairly deprive the inmates of their rights to pursue their legal claims.
Jeff Rosenzweig, another attorney for the inmates, declined to comment about the ruling.
Cathy Frye, a spokeswoman for the Arkansas Department of Correction, said the department can't comment on ongoing litigation and referred all questions to the Arkansas Attorney General's Office. The office's spokesman, Judd Deere, didn't immediately respond to a phone message seeking comment.
Merritt had argued that the inmates' case was largely based on speculation of what might happen, instead of fact. But Griffen ruled that the inmates had presented enough facts to warrant their case moving forward.
Griffen did grant the state's request to dismiss an argument that the secrecy law violated the separation of powers provisions by giving the Department of Correction power that was reserved for the Legislature. He cited a March ruling by the Arkansas Supreme Court denying a similar challenge to the state's previous execution law by many of the same inmates listed in the lawsuit.
On Thursday, an attorney for the inmates submitted a court filing citing troubles in neighboring Oklahoma as reason to stop the executions. Like Arkansas, Oklahoma has a secrecy law protecting the source of its execution drugs. A newly released autopsy report showed that Oklahoma used the wrong drug when it executed inmate Charles Warner in January.