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Executions In Arkansas Blocked By Federal Judge After Week-Long Trial


Now, we turn to a big story out of Arkansas. Plans by the state to execute several inmates in rapid succession have been blocked by the courts. The state had intended to complete the series of executions before its supply of a particular lethal injection drug expires. But rulings from several different judges have stopped that plan for now. Bobby Ampezzan is the managing editor of Arkansas Public Media, and he's with us now from Little Rock to tell us more about this story. Bobby, thank you so much for speaking with us.

BOBBY AMPEZZAN: Glad to be with you.

MARTIN: So I'm going to ask you to walk me through the latest developments, starting this morning when, as I understand it, a federal judge blocked six of these executions.

AMPEZZAN: Right, six of the cases. People might remember originally they were the Arkansas eight. They're eight men set to be executed in pairs beginning Monday. But one got his clemency appeal approved by the parole board and his execution stayed by the state Supreme Court. That was a few days ago. Friday, Bruce Ward was granted a stay because the courts agreed that he was mentally unfit to stand for these executions. But this morning, federal Judge Kristine Baker issued an injunction that stops the executions altogether - at least at this moment. This is the result of a week-long trial that really had some surprising revelations, most significantly that the manufacturers of these drugs for the lethal injections, they don't wish for their products to be used this way. They even question how the state got the drugs.

MARTIN: So there have been multiple rulings by several different courts addressing each of these issues. But is there a through line to any of their rulings?

AMPEZZAN: I mean, the court and the hearing that had lion's share of the gravity was Kristine Baker's hearing this week and her opinion this morning that found, her words, a significant possibility that the men will succeed on the merits of their Eighth Amendment challenge. Folks probably know the Eighth Amendment is the constitutional prohibition on cruel and unusual.

MARTIN: You mean, cruel and unusual punishment is what you're talking about.

AMPEZZAN: That's right. And the reason that I think Baker found this in court is that there have been a number of botched lethal injection executions across the country. Here in Arkansas, the one that probably is most profound was the one from three years ago in neighboring state Oklahoma - the execution of Clayton Lockett. This was an execution that took about three quarters of an hour, and it was the same three-drug protocol that Arkansas planned to use. Lockett was not sedated adequately, and as a result, when the second and third drugs were introduced, he began moaning and writhing, convulsing on the gurney. He clearly was distressed, and to some anti-death penalty advocates, it clearly constitutes torture.

MARTIN: What have state officials, the governor for example, said about all of this?

AMPEZZAN: The governor issued a statement today. He made great pains to sympathize with the families of the victims. He also said that he is very confident that the state's attorney general will, quote, "expedite" the reviews in these court opinions. The executions could go forward if the state Supreme Court here in Arkansas - because there is another stay here locally - if they were to reverse that and then of course if the eighth reversed it, it might even be heard by the U.S. Supreme Court. Let me add one final point, though, that a recent poll here in Arkansas put approval of the death penalty upwards of 60 percent. There's no question but that the majority of Arkansans support the death penalty.

MARTIN: Bobby Ampezzan is the managing editor of Arkansas Public Media. He was kind enough to join us today from Little Rock, Ark. Bobby, thanks so much for speaking with us.

AMPEZZAN: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Michel Martin is the weekend host of All Things Considered, where she draws on her deep reporting and interviewing experience to dig in to the week's news. Outside the studio, she has also hosted "Michel Martin: Going There," an ambitious live event series in collaboration with Member Stations.
Bobby Ampezzan