LITTLE ROCK, Ark. (AP) — A group of death row inmates won a court judgment Friday that temporarily blocks executions in Arkansas and says the state Legislature gave too much authority to the Correction Department when it designated the agency director as the person who picks the drug for lethal injections.
A law passed last year specified that the state kill inmates by using a barbiturate but did not specify which one.
Pulaski County Circuit Judge Wendell Griffen ruled from the bench after an hour-long hearing, granting the request by nine death row inmates and ensuring the state can't conduct an execution as the matter continues to wind through the courts.
Arkansas, which has no scheduled executions and hasn't executed an inmate since 2005, is among a number of states that are weighing changes to execution methods amid other inmate lawsuits.
The Arkansas inmates raised two issues and won on one of them, the agency director's authority to pick the drug. But Griffen granted a request by the state to throw out the other issue, in which the inmates argued that they couldn't be executed under the 2013 law because it wasn't in force at the time of their crimes.
Griffen found that the 2013 law was administrative in nature and not a sentencing law and therefore would still apply. The state argued the actual sentence was covered by the capital murder statute.
Jeff Rosenzweig, a lawyer for the death row inmates, said he will appeal the elements they lost to the Arkansas Supreme Court. Lawyers for the Arkansas attorney general's office didn't comment after Griffen's ruling.
In a statement issued later Friday, Arkansas Attorney General Dustin McDaniel said: "I have aggressively battled to uphold death penalty sentences, and I will appeal the decision. This is yet another example of the practical and legal hurdles complicating our state's execution process."
While the law does say that a barbiturate must be used, it doesn't specify training for Correction Department staff who would conduct the executions and lacks the specificity of a 1983 law that said the state should administer a short-acting barbiturate.
"My major problem," Griffen said of the law, "... is what I see as an absence of guidelines."
Attorney Josh Lee, also representing the inmates, argued that there is no assurance in the law that an execution would be "swift and humane" and that it failed to establish procedures and rules.
Lee argued that the barbiturate class of drugs varies widely and picking the wrong one could result in an execution taking up to three hours and causing a "lingering death." He also argued that the statute is flawed because it specifies that the inmate first be given an anti-anxiety drug, benzodiazepine.
Lee said benzodiazepine in large doses can cause adverse reactions, such as anxiety, agitation and disturbances to motor skills. He characterized administration of the drug as a punishment added on to the execution sentence.
Assistant Attorney General David Curran argued a death row inmate could file a separate lawsuit to challenge use of a specific barbiturate.
Griffen asked Curran whether some barbiturates could be administered without causing death. Curran said he didn't know.
"How would the director of the Department of Correction know the answer to that question?" Griffen replied.
Curran said the law is specific enough in that it says an inmate be given a lethal dose. He added that the Eighth Amendment prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment would ensure executions are carried out properly and that the state can trust the Correction Department director "to do the right thing."
The Legislature passed the new execution law last year after the Arkansas Supreme Court threw out a 2009 law, also on grounds that legislators gave too much discretion to the Correction Department.
Last year, the Arkansas Correction Department said it had chosen pentobarbital as its execution drug but later reversed that decision.
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