The Arkansas Supreme Court on Wednesday issued a stay of execution for one of two inmates set to die the following day, saying that he should have a chance to prove his innocence with more DNA testing.
Stacey Johnson, 47, has claimed that advanced DNA techniques could show that he didn't kill Carol Heath, a 25-year-old mother of two, in 1993 at her southwest Arkansas apartment. In a 4-3 ruling, the state's highest court ordered a new hearing in a lower court for Johnson to make his claims.
“Some items have never been tested,” Jeff Rosenzweig, Johnson’s lawyer, said. “We should be able to use these new techniques, but we’ve been denied that so far.”
Ledell Lee, 51, is also scheduled to be executed Thursday and is also seeking a stay to allow for new DNA evidence. The American Civil Liberties Union and the Innocence Project, who have taken over Lee's case, also argue that Lee has an intellectual disability that resulted from fetal alcohol syndrome. They also said he suffered from “horrible legal counsel.”
Arkansas officials have aggressively responded to a flurry of last-minute legal challenges on behalf of eight inmates sentenced to die by lethal injection before April 30.
In a separate filing, all eight death row inmates asked the U.S. Supreme Court on Wednesday to block the executions. Three of the inmates already had their capital punishments blocked by other court orders.
The state has hit back on every legal challenge and accused defense lawyers of using “dilatory tactics” and “execution eve iteration” to prevent the executions from taking place.
“Petitioners are convicted capital murdered who have enjoyed multiple opportunities to challenge their convictions, sentences and – critically – the method by which they will be lawfully executed,” the state wrote in its filing to the high court. “Their guilt and the justness of their sentences are beyond any dispute.”
The eight scheduled executions over an 11-day period would be the most any state has ever carried out since the death penalty was reinstated in 1976.
Gov. Asa Hutchinson set the aggressive schedule in February and argued it was needed because one of the three drugs the state uses to carry out lethal injections is set to expire at the end of the month.
What followed was a wave of legal challenges and protests from the inmates, anti-death penalty advocates as well as the drug manufacturer who accused the state of misrepresenting its use of the drug. The court fights have pushed Arkansas to the forefront of the death penalty debate in America.
After Johnson and Lee, the next two men scheduled to die on April 24 are Jack Jones and Marcell Williams, followed by Kenneth Williams on April 27.
The last time two executions were attempted was in Oklahoma in 2014. In that case, the state botched one execution and was forced to call off the other after the combination of drugs the state used failed to kill inmate Clayton Lockett who was left writhing violently on a gurney as officials spent 20 minutes trying to execute him.
Following the grisly outcome, the state called off the second lethal injection.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.