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Arkansas Sidesteps Legal Wrangling, Executes First in List of Inmates

Ledell Lee appears in Pulaski County Circuit Court for a hearing. He was executed April 20 for a 1993 murder. Benjamin Krain/The Arkansas Democrat-Gazette via AP, File

Despite legal moves to prevent the carrying out of a series of executions, the state of Arkansas put its first inmate to death late Thursday, marking its first since 2005.

Ledell Lee was pronounced dead at 11:56 p.m., Thursday, four minutes before his death warrant was due to expire at midnight.  Lee’s execution ended a week of court motions and movements to keep him and the others that Gov. Asa Hutchinson had scheduled to die by lethal injection.

Arkansas was pushing to execute eight condemned men to death before its supply of the sedative drug midazolam, one of three used in its execution process, expired at the end of April.

Three of those executions were canceled this week because of court decisions. Another inmate scheduled for execution next week has received a stay. But Arkansas wants to put two other inmates to death Monday, and one next Thursday.

Lee, 51, was put to death 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  following the killing and after spending some of the $300 he had stolen from the victim. He was convicted in 1995.  He made no final statement and did not show signs of suffering as his execution was carried out, according to the Associated Press.

The execution went forward as the U.S. Supreme Court rejected 11th-hour appeals from his lawyers, but one justice expressed reservations about what has been called by critics, the state’s “rush” to execute the inmates.

“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,” Justice Stephen Breyer wrote, in an opinion.

A Wednesday ruling by an Arkansas circuit court also seemed to hold up the executions. The Pulaski County judge ruled from the bench on Wednesday that the use of the vecuronium bromide for executions would cause “irreparable harm” to its supplier, McKesson Corp, which says it makes the drug for medicinal usage and did not know the state was planning to carry out executions with it.

Arkansas had originally set out to execute the eight prisoners in a series of four double-executions over an 11-day period. That 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.


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