By Steve Barnes
LITTLE ROCK, Ark. (Reuters) - The U.S. Supreme Court denied last-minute appeals from one of two Arkansas killers scheduled for execution on Monday evening, clearing the way for the first of two back-to-back executions to proceed.
Jack Jones, 52, who raped and killed a woman in 1995 and left her 11-year-old daughter for dead, and Marcel Williams, 46, who kidnapped, raped and murdered a woman in 1997, were scheduled for lethal injection in what would be the first time in 17 years that a U.S. state executed two inmates on the same day.
The two men separately filed 11th-hour applications with the U.S. Supreme Court on Monday afternoon seeking to have their executions halted. Such petitions are rarely granted.
Jones and Williams argued their obesity could expose them to unconstitutional pain and suffering if their death sentences included the sedative midazolam, one of three drugs the state uses for lethal injections.
In addition, Jones said the Arkansas Supreme Court applied the wrong standard of review in 1997 when considering whether a jury properly determined his death sentence.
Williams, meanwhile, also argued that his previous lawyers failed to present jurors with evidence of his difficult childhood, including sexual, physical and psychological abuse.
The court denied Jones' two stay requests without comment. Justice Sonia Sotomayor dissented from one of the two orders. Williams' petitions remained pending as of 6:30 p.m. CDT, less than two hours before he was scheduled to die.
The inmates' likelihood of success may have diminished with the recent appointment of conservative U.S. Supreme Court Justice Neil Gorsuch.
Last week, the high court cleared the way for Arkansas to hold its first execution in 12 years, and the state executed murderer Ledell Lee.
Williams also filed an appeal with the Arkansas Supreme Court late on Monday, claiming his trial attorney plagiarized large swaths of his appellate brief without attribution.
The last time a state executed two inmates on the same day was 2000 in Texas.
Jones was scheduled to be put to death on Monday at 7 p.m. CDT (0000 GMT) at the Cummins Unit prison, about 75 miles (120 km) southeast of the state capital, Little Rock, for killing 34-year-old Mary Phillips and trying to murder her young daughter. Jones also was convicted of rape and murder in Florida.
Williams was tentatively scheduled to be executed at 8:15 p.m. CDT (0115 GMT on Tuesday) for the murder of 22-year-old Stacy Errickson. He also abducted and raped two other women.
The condemned pair were among eight inmates that Arkansas had initially planned to execute in 11 days this month, prompted by the impending expiration date of the state's supplies of midazolam.
The drug was used in flawed executions in Oklahoma and Arizona, where witnesses said the inmates writhed in apparent pain on the gurney. No problems were reported in Lee's execution on Thursday.
Four of the planned executions have been put on hold by court order, including two pending the outcome of a case heard on Monday by the U.S. Supreme Court.
The court's four liberal justices appeared sympathetic to the argument by Alabama death row inmate James McWilliams that he is entitled to a mental health assessment from an independent medical expert before he can be executed.
Arkansas has scheduled a final execution for April on Thursday.
The compressed schedule generated a wave of criticism and legal challenges, including a lawsuit from the company that distributes one of the drugs. McKesson Medical-Surgical Inc, a unit of McKesson Corp , said the state obtained its supplies under false pretenses, but the state's Supreme Court threw out that lawsuit last week.
(Reporting by Joseph Ax; Editing by Jonathan Oatis and Bill Trott)