By Steve Barnes
LITTLE ROCK, Ark. (Reuters) - Arkansas' Supreme Court halted two executions hours before they were scheduled to take place on Monday, while a federal appeals court removed a decision that blocked the state's original plan to execute eight prisoners in an 11-day period.
The decision by the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in St. Louis did not pertain to an Arkansas State Supreme Court decision, which meant the state did not have the authority to execute murderers Don Davis and Bruce Ward on Monday evening, the Arkansas attorney general's office said.
(For graphic on executions in the United States click: http://tmsnrt.rs/2puSJKI)
Ward and Davis were being held in cells near the state's death chamber and their execution warrants expire at midnight (0500 GMT Tuesday).
In a 4-3 decision, Arkansas' highest court stayed the executions of the two, who have each spent more than 20 years on death row. Their lawyers had raised questions about their mental competency.
A separate decision by the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in St. Louis vacated a decision made over the weekend by a federal district judge that halted all eight executions. The next executions are scheduled for Thursday.
The legal fight in Arkansas, which has not held an execution in 12 years, came after U.S. executions fell to a quarter-century low in 2016 and as capital punishment in several states was stymied by problems with lethal injection drugs and legal questions over their protocols.
Arkansas said it would go ahead with its plans to execute the remaining six inmates, through dual executions on Thursday, April 24 and April 27.
Critics have contended that Arkansas' rush to the death chamber was reckless. The state has said it had to act quickly because one of the drugs in its difficult-to-obtain lethal injection mix, the valium-like sedative midazolam, expires at the end of April.
Attorneys for the eight are likely to appeal the federal court's decision to the U.S. Supreme Court. They filed a separate petition for stays on Monday with the U.S. Supreme Court over a procedural matter.
The state also argued that U.S. District Judge Kristine Baker abused her discretion on Saturday when she ruled about potential harm from midazolam.
The drug has been used in flawed executions in Oklahoma and Arizona. Critics contend it does not put a person in a deep enough state of unconsciousness and should not be used in executions.
The state Supreme Court on Monday vacated a decision from last week from a state judge who issued a temporary restraining blocking the use of one of three drugs Arkansas planned for its executions, vercuronium bromide, after drug companies said the state deceived the firms in procuring the chemicals.
In 2014, Oklahoma was the last state to attempt two executions on the same night, an event that has not happened since Texas held a dual execution in 2000.
In Oklahoma's first execution, a poorly secured intravenous tube popped out, lethal-injection chemicals sprayed out in the death chamber and staff said the pressure of dual executions exposed flaws. The second execution was canceled.
(Reporting by Steve Barnes; Writing by Jon Herskovitz; Editing by Andrew Hay and Bill Trott)