By Steve Barnes
LITTLE ROCK, Ark. (Reuters) - Arkansas plans to carry out its first executions in a dozen years on Thursday by killing two inmates who claim they are innocent and have launched last-minute appeals to have their lives spared.
Convicted murderers Stacey Johnson, 47, and Ledell Lee, 51, each are seeking DNA testing their lawyers argue could prove they did not commit the crimes that sent them to death row.
But the state is pressing ahead with its efforts to put the men to death in back-to-back lethal injections Thursday night at its Cummins Unit in the town of Grady, about 75 miles southeast of Little Rock. If the executions are carried out, they would be the first dual U.S. executions in 17 years.
Arkansas had sought to execute eight inmates over 11 days in April, the most of any state in as a short a period since the U.S. death penalty was reinstated in 1976. Governor Asa Hutchinson set the unprecedented schedule due to one of the drugs in the state's lethal injection mix expiring at the end of the month.
A blizzard of legal challenges resulted in three of the executions being halted and raised broader questions about the lethal injection drug mixes and death chamber protocols in U.S. executions, which hit a quarter-century low in 2016.
The last time two executions were attempted in one night was in 2014 in Oklahoma, when prison staff bungled the first and the state called off the second one.
Johnson was convicted in Arkansas of the 1993 murder and sexual assault of Carol Heath. Prosecutors said he beat, strangled and slit Heath's throat while the victim's 6-year-old daughter watched.
Johnson's lawyers said experts have proven the child's testimony was unreliable. They also said the execution should be put on hold to allow for newer types of DNA testing that were previously unavailable.
"Some items have never been tested," said Jeff Rosenzweig, an attorney for Johnson. "We think we should be able to use these new techniques, but we’ve been denied that so far."
Lee was convicted of beating Debra Reese to death with a tire iron in 1993. On Tuesday, a state judge denied a motion from Lee's lawyers for DNA testing.
"This Court does not find that the proposed testing would raise a reasonable probability that the defendant did not commit the offense," state Circuit Judge Herbert Wright wrote in a ruling, which Lee's lawyers have appealed.
(Reporting by Steve Barnes in Little Rock, Arkansas, and Jon Herskovitz in Austin, Texas; Editing by Colleen Jenkins and Phil Berlowitz)