LITTLE ROCK, Ark. (AP) — The Arkansas Parole Board recommended Monday that the governor reject long-shot bids for clemency by two of inmates facing lethal injection next month, as a new lawsuit challenges the state's unprecedented plan to conduct four double executions over a 10-day period.
The board told Gov. Asa Hutchinson the clemency requests by convicted murderers Stacey Eugene Johnson and Ledell Lee were without merit. The ultimate decision on whether to spare the men's lives rests with Hutchinson, who scheduled the executions last month. Hutchinson did not say when he'd make a decision.
"I've been satisfied by the court's review and establishment of guilt on the two cases, however, any time there's a clemency review that is before me, I will look at it thoroughly and make a decision," the Republican governor said in a statement.
Three other inmates scheduled for executions have asked the Parole Board to spare their lives, with decisions expected in the next week. Johnson and Lee are set to die April 20, which would mark the first execution in Arkansas since 2005. The other double executions are set for April 17, April 24 and April 27.
The eight inmates asked a federal judge earlier Monday to block the state's unprecedented plan, arguing that the execution schedule and Arkansas' planned use of the controversial sedative midazolam violates their constitutional rights. The state's current stock of midazolam expires at the end of April.
"The rushed schedule appreciably increases the risk of harm to plaintiffs, falls far outside the bounds of modern penological practice, and disrespects the plaintiffs' fundamental dignity — defects that all run against the Eighth Amendment's protection," the inmates' attorneys said in their request for a preliminary injunction.
Arkansas hasn't executed an inmate in more than a decade because of court challenges and difficulty obtaining lethal injection drugs. The state hasn't carried out a double execution since 1999, and while Texas has executed eight people in a month — twice in 1997 — no state in the modern era has executed that many prisoners in 10 days.
Johnson, 47, was condemned for the 1993 death of Carol Heath, who was beaten and strangled, and had her throat slit. DNA evidence included a hair found on Heath's body and a cigarette butt with Johnson's saliva that was found in the pocket of a shirt left at a roadside park with Heath's blood on it.
Lee, 51, was sentenced to die for the 1993 death of Debra Reese, a neighbor who was beaten to death in her home with a tire iron that her husband had given her for protection. She was struck 36 times.
Both men have claimed they were innocent, and their attorneys cited problems with the way their cases were handled in lower court. The victims' family members urged the board to not commute the inmates' sentences, saying they wanted closure.
Of the 27 people executed in Arkansas since 1990, 20 had clemency requests rejected and the others didn't apply. In 1999, against the parole board's recommendation, then-Gov. Mike Huckabee reduced Bobby Fretwell's sentence to life without parole after a juror said he went along with Fretwell's condemnation because he didn't want to be ostracized in his small town.
Johnson's attorney said he was disappointed but not surprised by the board's decision. He acknowledged the chances of Hutchinson reversing course may be slim.
"The odds are against it, but we'll just have to see. He still has time to think about it," attorney Jeff Rosenzweig said.
Monday's lawsuit is the latest of several efforts by the inmates to halt the executions. A separate challenge against Arkansas' lethal injection law — which keeps the source of the state's lethal injection drugs secret — is pending in Pulaski County Circuit Court. The inmates have also asked the U.S. Supreme Court to reconsider its decision to not weigh in on a state court ruling upholding the law's constitutionality.
The new lawsuit argues that the state doesn't have appropriate training or protocols in place for the four double executions. Attorney General Leslie Rutledge's office called the suit "yet another attempt to delay justice."
"She will continue to fully defend Arkansas' method of execution, and she expects the executions to proceed as scheduled," spokeswoman Jessica Ray said in an email.
Marcel Williams, who was convicted in the 1994 murder of Stacy Errickson, appeared before the Arkansas Parole Board on Monday morning to ask for clemency; Errickson's family and prosecutors urged the panel to move forward with his April 24 execution. Hearings are set before the board on Friday for two other inmates. Williams told the panel he took responsibility for his crime.
"I wish I could take it back, but I can't," Williams told the board.
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