But just hours before those executions were slated to begin on Monday, a federal judge issued an injunction early Saturday morning that halts them, saying Arkansas' lethal injection protocol could violate the inmates' Eighth Amendment rights. Two others won stays of execution from state courts, leaving six of the original petitioners now in line for their executions to be carried out.
A federal judge could further upend the plans, with a possible ruling on Saturday on whether to halt the executions over the inmates' complaints about the compressed timetable and the use of a controversial sedative in the lethal injections.
McKesson Medical Surgical said it had sold vercuronium bromide to Arkansas for medical purposes and that it was not supposed to be used for capital punishment. "The court granted a stay of Ward's scheduled execution today but offered no reason for doing so". That plan, if carried out, would have marked the most inmates executed by a state in such a short period since the U.S. Supreme Court reinstated the death penalty in 1976.
Governor Asa Hutchinson has said the state must act quickly because its midazolam supply expires at the end of the month.
"We are grateful that the Arkansas Supreme Court has issued a stay of execution for Bruce Ward so that they may consider the serious questions presented about his sanity". She said that while the state demonstrated it does not plan to torture the inmates, the inmates had a right to challenge the method of execution in an attempt to show it "creates a demonstrated risk of severe pain".
Arkansas Attorney General Leslie Rutledge vowed to appeal the temporary restraining order.
The drug is used along with potassium chloride and midazolam. One of them was never put into the execution schedule for April.
The state initially planned to execute eight inmates, but in the past two weeks, stays were issued for two of the men. McKesson Corp. claims Arkansas improperly used medical credentials to obtain the vecuronium bromide and wants the product returned.
Griffen's order was issued the same day he was reported to be among those demonstrating at a vigil related to the executions.
A spokesperson for state Attorney General Leslie Rutledge said Arkansas would appeal the ruling, adding, "It is unfortunate that a USA district judge has chosen to side with the convicted prisoners in one of their many last-minute attempts to delay justice".
Under Arkansas state law, the parole board must take at least 30 days before sending the recommendation to the governor, which meant officials would be unable to execute that inmate during the period before the lethal drug expires, according to Julie Vandiver, an assistant federal public defender in Little Rock and one of the attorneys representing McGehee and other death-row inmates. In a petition to the Arkansas Supreme Court, Ward's attorneys described him as a diagnosed schizophrenic who has spent decades in solitary confinement without treatment for his mental illness and argued that he was not competent to be executed.
"As a public opponent of capital punishment, Judge Griffen should have recused himself from this case", said Judd Deere, spokesman for the attorney general.
U.S. District Judge Kristine Baker on Saturday granted a preliminary injunction requested by the inmates to block the executions.
"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.