Arkansas execution flurry marks early test for new Justice Gorsuch

Handout of inmate Ledell Lee is scheduled to be executed by lethal injection in Arkansas
Inmate Ledell Lee is shown in this booking photo provided March 21, 2017. Lee s scheduled to be executed in Arkansas, April 20, 2017. Courtesy Arkansas Department of Corrections/Handout via REUTERS

April 21, 2017

By Lawrence Hurley and Jon Herskovitz

(Reuters) – Newly appointed conservative U.S. Supreme Court Justice Neil Gorsuch helped clear the way for Arkansas to hold its first execution in 12 years, a sign of the challenges facing other inmates seeking to block their executions next week.

In his first recorded vote, President Donald Trump’s pick for the court sided as expected with its renewed conservative majority. The justices voted 5-4 to reject an emergency application brought by several inmates before Arkansas executed convicted murderer Ledell Lee.

Lee’s lethal injection for the 1993 beating death of Debra Reese was the only one carried out so far by the state this month, despite an original plan to execute eight inmates in April before its supply of one of the three drugs used expires.

The executions would be the most by any state in the shortest period since the Supreme Court reinstated capital punishment in the United States in 1976. Four of those executions have been indefinitely delayed by stays for matters including DNA testing, clemency consideration or to allow for a decision in an upcoming U.S. Supreme Court case.

Gorsuch’s vote could again be crucial next week when Arkansas plans to execute three more inmates.

On Monday, the state will try to put two inmates to death on the same day, something that has not been done in the United States in 17 years. Arkansas also plans a single execution for Thursday.

As a conservative justice in the mold of the man he replaced, Antonin Scalia, Gorsuch is seen by most court-watchers as unlikely to undermine the death penalty.

Kent Scheidegger, a lawyer with the pro-prosecution Criminal Justice Legal Foundation, said Gorsuch is “not one who will further delay justice when it has already been badly delayed merely because the lawyers for a death row inmate bring weak claims at the last minute.”

The court has rejected stays for the eight men, including Lee. Their lawyers have argued that Arkansas’ rush to the death chamber amounted to cruel and unusual punishment, and violated the inmates’ right to counsel and their right to access the courts and counsel during the execution process.

What a possible Gorsuch vote means for the upcoming Arkansas executions depends largely on the individual legal issues raised by the inmates and whether lower courts intervene. The Supreme Court’s default approach to emergency applications is to deny them, whether from a state or a prison inmate.

There may be further indications on how Gorsuch will approach such cases on Monday, when the court hears oral arguments in a death penalty case from Alabama. It concerns inmate James McWilliams, sentenced to death for a 1984 rape, robbery and murder.

The question is whether McWilliams has a right to an independent medical expert to assess whether he is mentally disabled and therefore ineligible for execution.

Two of the Arkansas death row inmates the state had planned to execute this week, Don Davis and Bruce Ward, had their cases put on hold by the Arkansas Supreme Court pending the U.S. high court’s decision in the McWilliams case, due by the end of June.

There are no signs that the U.S. Supreme Court is inclined to tackle the broader question of whether the death penalty is unconstitutional under the 8th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, which prohibits cruel and unusual punishment.

The court’s conservatives, including Gorsuch, would be expected to uphold capital punishment. (For a graphic on the number and method of executions in the United States since 1976, see: http://tmsnrt.rs/20uUlkC)

(Reporting by Lawrence Hurley in Washington and Jon Herskovitz in Austin, Texas; Editing by Colleen Jenkins and Jonathan Oatis)

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  • jaypnc

    One of the execution drugs “expires” 4/30 and can’t be used … hmmmm, wrap your head around that one. Why don’t they give them one large shot of heroin, done. I’m pretty sure most law enforcement agencies probably have a lot of it in storage ..

    • Jose Arcadio Buendia

      Why not do what the Nazi’s did? Please take this pill, Mr. Inmate 123456.

      • jaypnc

        Really?? What did the people do? Did those Jews and Gypsys kill people? There was no trial .. no conviction … fk off

        • Jose Arcadio Buendia

          No the NAZIs only gave pills to their own people. That is what is was referring. Sorry if you think anyone in their right mind would sanction killing anyone for no reason other than hate, Jaypnc. You are mistaken, just thought the pill was a lot cheaper than housing inmates to the cost of 40-50k annually.

          • jaypnc

            That wasn’t my comment above … seems like my commenting account may have been hacked ..

          • Jose Arcadio Buendia

            No worries. Glad to clear things up. Not here to promote hate, hopefully America is beyond this.

  • Bluthar

    Executions should be done by firing squad. Fast and cheap

    • jaypnc

      Depends on how much the victim suffered, rape a child, battery acid IV is too nice ..

    • Jose Arcadio Buendia

      Yours is a good one, too

  • Clinicaleducator1

    1 down 7 to go. Don’t do the crime if you can’t do the time!!!

    • Hater

      In this case, “time” is eternity!

  • Rich FSr

    I want them to supply a drug that will make these slugs scream in pain for hours before they die. Bleed from every hole in their body. Even better, some bugs you can put in them that will eat them alive from the inside out.

    • jaypnc

      Battery acid drip would work …

  • Rich FSr

    I don’t care if it takes hours to die. Execute them all. Bet they didn’t care if their victims suffered?

  • Sure, Not

    I wonder what laws are applicable here. I suppose that Arkansas must prescribe conditions under which executions are carried out. Have those conditions been met? Have the circumstances reached a cruel & unusual threshold necessary for Feds to intervene? The Supreme Court decision suggests yes to the former and no to the latter; I just wish news coverage gave a bit more detail. As an aside, I also wonder, if execution conditions have been met, why the execution hadn’t already been done.

  • Flagfriend

    Regarding government:

    ” Do you want to be free from fear of the one in authority? Then do what is right and you will be commended. For the one in authority is God’s servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for rulers do not bear the sword for no reason. They are God’s servants, agents of wrath to bring punishment on the wrongdoer.”
    Romans 13:3b-4.

  • Russ

    These bastards should die a painful death like their victims…I am so broken up if it is painful for them. On a high note…Thanks Justice Gorsuch for following the law!

  • tedlv

    What difference does it make if the drug expires? Will it turn lethal?

    • Ken Westcott

      I have thought that all along !

    • Rich FSr

      Maybe if we’re lucky it will make them suffer longer.

  • will

    I don’t think we’ve done our job properly if they don’t twist in pain a little bit for all of the pain they’ve caused decent people.

    • Sure, Not

      I see your point, but one might argue that’s God’s job, not ours.

      • Rich FSr

        God’s job is to decide whether they go to Heaven or Hell. We have to dole out justice here on Earth.