By Steve Barnes
LITTLE ROCK, Ark. (Reuters) - A decade after the last execution in Arkansas, a ruling by the state's Supreme Court has moved the state back on a path to resuming capital punishment by lethal injection.
But restarting could prove problematic due to a shortage of execution drugs stemming from a sales boycott by European pharmaceutical firms that has sent states scrambling for alternatives and a U.S. Supreme Court case questioning the mix used in Oklahoma, where a troubled execution last year led the White House to seek a review of capital punishment.
The Arkansas court ruling was applauded by the Republican-dominated government that took office in January, wanting to resume executions of the 33 people on the state's death row, and residents, with opinion polls showing strong support for capital punishment.
"Obviously they are all in a very perilous situation," said Jeff Rosenzweig, a Little Rock attorney who represents four of the eight prisoners at the front of the line for execution.
There are about 1,000 U.S. inmates who have been sentenced to death in states like Arkansas, California and Pennsylvania that have not conducted any execution for years because of political or judicial reasons.
Last week, a sharply divided state Supreme Court ruled the Arkansas lethal injection law was constitutional, overturning a lower court ruling that led to a moratorium on the grounds that lawmakers had abrogated their responsibility to adequately oversee the process.
Death penalty opponents are not optimistic. The Oklahoma case now before the U.S. Supreme Court "is the only Hail Mary pass left," said Herb Rule, a Little Rock attorney.
A major step is determining what chemicals the state will use and likely hinges on legislation under study in the Arkansas legislature, said Cathy Frye, spokeswoman for the Department of Correction.
"We're awaiting orders," Frye said, adding the department did not have any chemicals used in lethal injections.
Lawmakers are weighing bills that would permit executions using drugs other than those most recently employed by the state. One Republican state representative whose daughter's killer is on Arkansas's death row, has said she may press for execution by firing squad as an alternative to lethal injection.
Several states have turned to lightly regulated compounding pharmacies, which can mix chemicals for use as pharmaceuticals, to make their lethal injection compounds.
Lawyers for death row inmates have said this could lead to impure mixtures that could cause undue suffering and violate U.S. constitutional protections against cruel and unusual punishment.
(Editing by Jon Herskovitz; Editing by Sandra Maler)