By Steve Barnes
LITTLE ROCK, Ark. (Reuters) - A U.S. federal judge on Saturday temporarily blocked plans by Arkansas to carry out a rapid series of executions this month, after the inmates argued the state's rush to the death chamber was unconstitutional and reckless.
Arkansas, which has not carried out an execution in 12 years, planned to begin the lethal injections of at least six convicted murderers on Monday and complete the executions before the end of April. Since the U.S. Supreme Court reinstated the death penalty in 1976, no state has ever put as many inmates to death in as short a period.
The ruling on Saturday by a federal court in Little Rock threatens that plan, as did an order on Friday by an Arkansas state judge. The federal judge, however, provided officials with an opportunity to address her concerns at a hearing on Monday.
Arkansas had scheduled the fast-paced series of executions in order to beat the expiration date on its batch of one of the three drugs used in its lethal injection cocktail.
U.S. District Judge Kristine Baker, in a 101-page ruling, found the state's plan would deny the inmates their legal rights by depriving them of adequate counsel because prison officials allow only a single lawyer to be present for any execution.
If the attorney had to rush out to file an emergency petition, it would deprive the inmate of a lawyer to witness the execution, Baker said.
"The court finds that plaintiffs are entitled to a preliminary injunction based on their challenge to (the state's) viewing policies, in their current form, as unreasonable restrictions of plaintiffs' right to counsel and right of access to the courts," Baker wrote.
Baker ordered lawyers for the state and the death row prisoners to return to court on Monday with a revised plan for viewing the executions and having defense counsel present.
Arkansas Attorney General Leslie Rutledge vowed to appeal the temporary restraining order.
"It is unfortunate that a U.S. District Judge has chosen to side with the convicted prisoners in one of their many last-minute attempts to delay justice," Judd Deere, a spokesman for Rutledge, said in a statement.
The lawsuit behind the injunction was filed on behalf of nine condemned prisoners. One of them was never put into the execution schedule for April. Two others won stays of execution from state courts, leaving six of the original petitioners currently in line for their executions to be carried out.
The state's mixture of drugs used in executions has brought legal challenges, and Baker's ruling on Saturday also raised questions about whether one of them, midazolam, was effective enough at preventing pain during executions.
Arkansas employs potassium chloride in combination with vecuronium bromide and midazolam. The latter drug is intended to render the inmate unconscious before the other two chemicals are administered to paralyze the lungs and stop the heart.
Governor Asa Hutchinson has said the state must act quickly because its midazolam supply expires at the end of the month.
John Williams, attorney for some of the death row prisoners welcomed Baker's ruling, saying it was legally sound and reasonable.
"The unnecessarily compressed execution schedule using the risky drug midazolam denies prisoners their right to be free from the risk of torture," he said in a statement.
Critics have contended that the drug does not achieve the level of unconsciousness required for surgery, making it unsuitable for executions. Supporters have said it is effective, and the U.S. Supreme Court has authorized its use.
On Friday, Arkansas Circuit Court Judge Wendell Griffen, an outspoken opponent of capital punishment, issued an order on Friday blocking the state from using vecuronium bromide after a petition from its maker, McKesson Medical-Surgical Inc. The company, along with other pharmaceutical makers, objects to its drug being used in executions.
Rutledge filed an emergency petition with the Arkansas Supreme Court on Saturday seeking to overturn Griffen's order.
(Reporting by Steve Barnes; Writing by Alex Dobuzinskis; Editing by Alistair Bell)