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Arkansas blocked from using drug ahead of planned executions

A US judge has blocked the state from using a lethal injection drug in a planned execution of seven inmates over 11 days. The scheduled "execution assembly line" sparked outrage among civil rights organizations.

Pulaski County Circuit Judge Wendell Griffen on Friday issued a temporary restraining order blocking the state of Arkansas from using one of three lethal injection drugs on seven death row inmates.

The ruling on came as Arkansas prepared to put seven prisoners to death between Monday, April 17, and Thursday, April 27. Last week, a judge stopped a planned eighth execution.

Read more: death penalty makes comeback in the US

'Execution assembly line'

In what the convicted inmates' defense attorneys decried as an "execution assembly line," Arkansas Governor Asa Hutchinson scheduled seven executions to take place over 11 days - three nights of double executions and one single one.

Arkansas was reportedly rushing to perform the executions because the expiration date on its supply of one of the drugs used in the lethal cocktail, Midazolam, is April 30.

If the plan had gone ahead, it would have marked the most inmates executed by a state in such a short period since the US Supreme Court reinstated the death penalty in 1976. 

USA Liste der acht Gefangene - Giftspritze in Arkansas (Reuters/Courtesy Arkansas Department of Corrections)

The eight death row inmates who were scheduled to be executed over 11 days

According to the local newspaper Arkansas Times, the drug's distibutor, McKesson, claimed that the state had obtained the drug through deceit. The suppliers of the muscle relaxant, vecuronium bromide, argued that it had been sold to the prison system on the premise that it would be used for legitimate medical purposes rather than executions.

Hollywood and faith leaders 

The plan to execute the Arkansas inmates sparked outrage among civil rights and anti-death penalty organizations. A rally against the executions held in the state capital, Little Rock, on Friday was attended by hundreds of demonstrators, including US actor Johnny Depp. 

Johnny Depp

US actor Johnny Depp was among the protesters at the civil rights and anti-death penalty demonstration in Little Rock

Prior to Friday's court ruling, religious leaders and execution opponents also pointed out that the first executions would have coincided with Easter Monday and appealed in a letter to take mercy on the death row inmates and commute their sentences to life in prison without parole.

Sister Helen Prejean, a vocal anti-death penalty activist and inspiration for the film "Dead Man Walking," tweeted that the fate of the eight Arkansas prisoners ultimately rested in Governor Hutchinson's hands - and the responsibility on his head.

The conservative-leaning residents of Arkansas tend to defend the use of the death penalty. A 2015 University of Arkansas poll revealed that 71 percent of the state's respondents favored capital punishment for a person convicted of murder. Nationwide approval was just over 60 percent, according to a Gallup poll published last year.

Stay of execution granted

In a separate case, a stay of execution was granted to Bruce Ward. The 60-year-old was due to be executed on Monday night for the 1989 death of Rebecca Doss, a teenage shop clerk who worked in Little Rock.

The Arkansas Supreme Court did not provide a reason for the decision, although Ward's attorneys had previously argued that he is a diagnosed schizophrenic with no rational understanding of his execution.

Read more: Amnesty International reports fewer executions, more death sentences worldwide

Lawsuit over reputation fears

On Thursday, two other pharmaceutical manufacturers also asked a federal judge to block Arkansas from using their drugs. Midazolam, the drug in question, has been criticized as contributing to several botched executions in other US states.

Similar to McKesson, drug companies West-Ward Pharmaceuticals and Fresenius Kabi USA claimed that their drugs had been secured in an improper manner, and that their use in executions could affect the ability to sell in Europe.

ksb/jm (AP, Reuters, epd)

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