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Arkansas executes first inmate in 12 years

Arkansas executed an inmate by legal injection, the first of a series planned this month. Critics have said the state is rushing to kill inmates before it runs out of a drug used in its lethal injection cocktail.

Ledell Lee (picture alliance/AP Photo/The Arkansas Democrat-Gazette/B. Krain)

The US state of Arkansas executed its first inmate in more than a decade on Thursday, overcoming a flurry of legal challenges to the state's plan to kill eight death row prisoners by lethal injection before the end of the month.

Ledell Lee, 51, was put to death despite widespread criticism the state was rushing the execution after the US Supreme Court in an 11-hour decision rejected a stay.

He received a three-drug cocktail that included the controversial sedative midazolam meant to make a person unconscious before two other drugs stop breathing and the heart. There were no apparent complications or suffering. 

He was pronounced dead at 11:56 p.m. local time, four minutes before the warrant for his death was set to expire.

"Tonight the lawful sentence of a jury which has been upheld by the courts through decades of challenges has been carried out," Arkansas Attorney General Leslie Rutledge said in a statement released after the execution.

More executions before end of month

Arkansas plans to execute three more inmates by the end of the month, when its supply of midazolam expires. Four other planned executions have been held up in courts, including one through a court decision to allow modern DNA analysis in a murder and rape case. 

Lee was put on death row for the 1993 murder of his neighbor Debra Reese, who he beat 36 times with a tire iron. He had always maintained his innocence.

Lee's lawyers had requested modern DNA testing to provide the convict a chance to prove his possible innocence. The courts denied the request.

"Arkansas' decision to rush through the execution of Mr. Lee just because its supply of lethal drugs are expiring at the end of the month denied him the opportunity to conduct DNA testing that could have proven his innocence," said Nina Morrison, senior staff attorney with the Innocence Project, a non-profit legal organization that helped represent Lee in his last appeals.

USA Hinrichtungen in Arkansas (picture-alliance/AP Photo/S. B. Thornton)

Anti-death penalty protesters outside the Varner Unit on Monday in Varner, Arkansas.

Complaints from drug companies

The execution faced another legal hurdle after a district court halted the use of vecuronium bromide, a chemical used to stop breathing, based on the complaint of pharmaceutical distributor McKesson.

The drug company was joined by the two producers of potassium chloride, used to stop the heart, and midazolam.

Watch video 01:04

Pfizer blocks use of drugs for executions

But the US Supreme Court in a 5-4 ruling reversed the lower court's decision on Thursday night. The pharmaceutical companies argued use of their drugs in the execution constituted a public health risk and violated end-user agreements and rules within distribution networks.

McKesson had argued there were restrictions on the use of vecuronium bromide in executions and the state never disclosed the drug would be used in a lethal cocktail.

Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer said in a dissent he was concerned Arkansas was rushing to execute death row inmates before the supply of midazolam expires.

"Apparently the reason the state decided to proceed with these eight executions is that the 'use by' date of the state's execution drug is about to expire...In my view, that factor, when considered as a determining factor separating those who live from those who die, is close to random," Breyer wrote.

'Manipulation of the judicial system'

Prosecutors in Arkansas have argued the defendants are trying to tie up their cases in the courts to buy time until the stock of midazolam expires.

"Through the manipulation of the judicial system, these men continue to torment the victims' families in seeking, by any means, to avoid their just punishment," prosecutors said in a joint statement issued Thursday.

Many of the legal battles in Arkansas have been over midazolam, mirroring similar cases in other US states that have the death penalty.

USA Todesstrafe Medikament Midazolam (picture-alliance/AP Photo)

Midazolam is used for a number of medical purposes, including anesthesia and reducing anxiety.

Midazolam began to be used as a sedative in the lethal injection cocktail in 2013 when states struggled to obtain a previously used drug after manufacturers stopped selling the chemicals for executions and the European Union in 2012 imposed controls of the export of drugs that could be used in executions.

Cut off from the supply of drugs, many states had to put off executions or experiment with new lethal injection combinations.

Most lethal injections occurred without mishaps, but a series of botched executions using midazolam and other drugs in which the executed apparently suffered raised legal challenges the Eighth Amendment of the Constitution prohibiting cruel and unusual punishment was being violated. 

In 2015, the Supreme Court ruled that states could use midazolam, but that has not stopped its use from tangling up executions in courts or leaving states struggling to obtain the drug. Arkansas Prisons director Wendy Kelley has said the state is unable to obtain
more midazolam or vecuronium bromide.

Since the Supreme Court ruled to reinstate the death penalty in 1973, the 31 US states that have the death penalty have carried out 1,448 executions, according to the Death Penalty Information Center. 

Over the same period, 158 people on death row were later exonerated of their crime. There are currently 2,902 inmates on death row.

Watch video 00:46

Amnesty report: Death sentences up, executions down

cw/sms (AP, AFP, dpa, Reuters)

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