Arkansas Aiming to Execute Three More Prisoners

Inmates Bruce Ward (top row left to right), Don Davis, Ledell Lee, Stacy Johnson, Jack Jones (bottom row left to right), Marcel Williams, Kenneth Williams and Jason McGehee are shown in booking photos provided March 21. Arkansas Department of Corrections

Even after Arkansas executed its first inmate in 15 years on Thursday, three men still face the possibility of being put to death by the state before month's end.

Ledell Lee was executed on Thursday, becoming the first to die among a group of eight men the state had been seeking to kill within an 11-day span. Lee, who was sentenced to death for the murder of Debra Reese in 1993, died at 11:56 p.m. Central time—four minutes before his death warrant was due to expire—from a lethal injection cocktail containing a combination of midazolam, vecuronium bromide and potassium chloride.

Related: The U.S. is killing fewer people, but upcoming executions could change that

Arkansas Governor Asa Hutchinson said the spate of executions needed to happen before April 30, the expiration date of the supply of one of the state's lethal injection drugs, midazolam. Four of the planned executions so far have been stayed, but the state still has plans to kill three more men before the end of the month: Marcel W. Williams and Jack Harold Jones on April 24 and Kenneth D. Williams on April 27.

The question remains: What will happen to them? The short answer, says Rob Dunham, executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center, is that it's unpredictable.

"The reason that last night was as chaotic as it was is that the stay applications involved substantive issues directly related to Ledell Lee's case, plus group issues raised by all the prisoners related to the execution process and to the clemency process, plus issues raised by the drug distributor about the impropriety of Arkansas's actions in deceptively obtaining the execution drugs," says Dunham.

McKesson Corp., a medical supply company, has alleged that Arkansas said it bought vecuronium bromide for medical reasons, when in fact it was purchased for the lethal injection cocktail.

"For the executions that remain, we can expect to see stay motions filed relating to the cases themselves, but for the most part the systemic issues and the issues related to the way in which Arkansas obtained the drugs won't be present in the case," he adds.

The U.S. Supreme Court came close to halting Lee's execution, but ultimately voted 5-4 to let the state carry it out. Neil Gorsuch, the new Supreme Court justice, sided with conservatives in the decision. Lee maintained his innocence until the end.

"The fact that he was first and the circumstances under which he was executed show how freakishly arbitrary this rush to execution has been," says Nina Morrison, senior staff attorney at The Innocence Project. "Ledell had been proclaiming his innocence to anyone that would listen from the day of his arrest 23 years ago through the night of his execution."

She adds: "Even though he was intellectually disabled, poor and in prison, he was writing letters to anyone he could asking for assistance in proving his innocence. He had as straightforward a claim for DNA testing as we've seen. Evidence that was used to convict him, hair and blood, had never been DNA tested, that the state argued at his trial came from the person who did this crime. Why in the world would they not halt the execution process even for a month to let him have a DNA test?"

"The state of Arkansas played God last night in the most freakish and arbitrary way imaginable," says Morrison.

The Arkansas execution push came shortly after an Amnesty International report that saw the U.S. fall out of the top five countries for executions for the first time in a decade. The U.S. is now the country with the seventh largest number of executions, behind Egypt. Deaths in Texas and Georgia accounted for 80 percent of executions in the U.S. last year.