VARNER, Ark. — Arkansas overcame a flurry of court challenges that derailed three other executions, putting to death an inmate for the first time in nearly a dozen years as part of a plan that would have been the country's most ambitious since the death penalty was restored in 1976.
Ledell Lee's lethal injection Thursday capped a chaotic week of legal wrangling that left Arkansas scrambling to salvage any part of its attempt to execute eight men before one of its drugs expires at the end of April.
Lee, 51, was pronounced dead at 11:56 p.m., four minutes before his death warrant was due to expire. He was put on death row for the 1993 death of his neighbor Debra Reese, whom he struck 36 times with a tire tool her husband had given her for protection. Lee was arrested less than an hour after the killing after spending some of the $300 he had stolen from Reese.
The state originally set four double executions over an 11-day period in April. The eight executions would have been the most by a state in such a compressed period since the U.S. Supreme Court reinstated the death penalty in 1976.
The first three executions were canceled this week because of court decisions. Two more inmates are set to die Monday, and one next Thursday. Another inmate scheduled for execution next week has received a stay.
After a hiatus of nearly 12 years, Lee's execution was carried out without any apparent glitches. Lee showed no signs of consciousness two minutes after the lethal injection, which began at 11:44 p.m. With arms extended, covered with a sheet, his head and hands covered with leather straps, Lee made no final statement and showed no apparent signs of suffering during the execution.
"The governor knows the right thing was done tonight," said J.R. Davis, a spokesman for Gov. Asa Hutchinson. "Justice was carried out."
The U.S. Supreme Court cleared the way for Lee's execution less than an hour before his death warrant was set to expire, rejecting a round of last-minute appeals from the condemned inmate's attorneys.
"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.
Arkansas dropped plans to execute a second inmate, Stacey Johnson, on Thursday after the state Supreme Court said it wouldn't reconsider his stay, which was issued so Johnson could seek more DNA tests in hopes of proving his innocence.
Another state Supreme Court ruling earlier in the day allowed officials to use a lethal injection drug that a supplier says Arkansas obtained by misleading the company. McKesson Corp. had filed a lawsuit accusing the state of obtaining its vecuronium bromide, one of three drugs used in the state's lethal injection process, under false pretenses.
McKesson said it wants nothing to do with executions and was disappointed in the court's ruling.
"We believe we have done all we can do at this time to recover our product," the company said in a statement.
Justices also denied an attempt by makers of midazolam and potassium chloride — the two other drugs in Arkansas' execution plan — to intervene in McKesson's fight over the vecuronium bromide. The pharmaceutical companies say there is a public health risk if their drugs are diverted for use in executions, and that the state's possession of the drugs violates rules within their distribution networks.
The legal delays frustrated Hutchinson. The state's elected prosecutors also criticized the roadblocks to the execution plans.
"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," the prosecutors said in a joint statement.
Lawyers for the state have complained that the inmates are filing court papers just to run out the clock on Arkansas' midazolam supply. Prisons director Wendy Kelley has said the state has no way to obtain more midazolam or vecuronium bromide. At one point in the proceedings before a federal judge last week, Arkansas Solicitor General Lee Rudofsky declared, "Enough is enough."
On Thursday evening, new U.S. Supreme Court Justice Neil Gorsuch joined the majority in ruling 5-4 to deny the stay of execution sought by Lee and the other inmates. Justice Stephen Breyer said in a dissent that he was troubled by Arkansas' push to execute the inmates before its 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.
Associated Press Writers Jill Bleed and Andrew DeMillo in Little Rock and Mark Sherman in Washington contributed to this report