By Carol Zimmermann, Catholic News Service
WASHINGTON — Catholic leaders initially praised the federal and state rulings that granted stays of executions for a group of Arkansas death-row inmates, but then a series of court actions seemed to clear the way for some of the executions.
“After the darkness of Good Friday has come a great light,” Karen Clifton, executive director of the Catholic Mobilizing Network against the Death Penalty, said in an April 16 statement. She said the plan to execute these men in such a short period of time brought about “an extraordinary response from so many people calling for a culture of life and an end to this practice of retribution.”
A federal judge’s April 15 ruling stopped the state from executing six of the inmates with a preliminary injunction handed down in response to a lawsuit filed by the inmates, who claimed the executions were unconstitutional because of their rapid pace and the ineffectiveness of the lethal injection drug midazolam. They claimed the sedative drug doesn’t always work and causes those who are being executed to feel pain from the use of other two lethal injection drugs.
The previous day, an Arkansas judge, responding to a lawsuit from two pharmaceutical companies, issued a temporary restraining order on the state’s executions based on evidence the state may not have obtained midazolam properly.
The state and federal judges’ rulings are both under appeal by the state. A significant delay in these arguments could halt these executions indefinitely since the state’s supply of midazolam will run out at the end of the month and state officials have said they have no source to obtain a further supply of the sedative.
But even with the court-issued stays, the executions are still possible before the end of April if the cases are sent to the Supreme Court and it sides with the state of Arkansas in its appeal.
On April 17, just minutes before inmate Don Davis was to be executed, the U.S. Supreme Court spared the inmate’s life by refusing to act on an appeal of the stay issued earlier that day by the Arkansas Supreme Court. The high court did not provide an explanation. The state court also had granted a stay to inmate Bruce Ward — regarding his access to mental health experts — which was not appealed.
That day the state also cleared obstacles that had been blocking some of the other scheduled executions. The 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals reversed a federal judge’s ruling that was preventing executions over the use of midazolam and the state Supreme Court lifted a lower court ruling that would have stopped the state from using another lethal injection drug.
In an April 18 statement, Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson said he was unhappy with the Supreme Court’s decision but was satisfied that the other court rulings “have once again cleared the state to proceed with carrying out the sentences of the other inmates.”
“While this has been an exhausting day for all involved, tomorrow we will continue to fight back on last minute appeals and efforts to block justice for the victims’ families,” he added.
Arkansas officials originally scheduled eight executions from April 17-27. Then after Ward was granted a stay, seven executions were to go forward. With Davis’ stay, six inmates still faced execution.
Hutchinson announced the executions months ago, saying they had to be done in quick succession to use the state’s final batch of midazolam before it expired at the end of April.
Many people have demonstrated against the state’s plan to execute these man in such quick succession, including the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.
In an April 13 statement, Bishop Frank J. Dewane of Venice, Florida, chairman of the bishops’ Committee on Domestic Justice and Human Development, urged the state’s governor to reconsider the scheduled executions and reduce the sentences to life imprisonment.
“May those in Arkansas who hold the lives of these individuals on death row in their hands be moved by God’s love, which is stronger than death, and abandon the current plans for execution,” he wrote.
The bishop said the timing for these executions “was not set by the demands of justice, but by the arbitrary politics of punishment,” referring to the state’s supply of the sedative used in executions. “And so, in a dark irony, a safeguard that was intended to protect people is now being used as a reason to hasten their deaths.”
After the rulings temporarily halting the executions were issued, Bishop Anthony B. Taylor of Little Rock, Arkansas, thanked all of those who had “prayed and worked so hard to prevent these scheduled executions from taking place.”
“Let us continue to pray and work for the abolition of the death penalty in Arkansas and throughout the country,” he said in a statement. He also urged for prayers for “healing for the victims of the horrific crimes” and for the perpetrators of these crimes, saying: “The Lord never gives up on anyone and neither should we.”