By Steve Barnes
LITTLE ROCK, Ark. (Reuters) - The top Arkansas court allowed the state on Thursday to use a drug that is part of its chemical mix for lethal injections, hours before the state planned its first execution in 12 years.
The decision from the Arkansas Supreme Court came about three hours before the state planned to execute convicted murderer Ledell Lee at 7 p.m. local time (0000 GMT) at its Cummins Unit in Grady, which houses the state's death chamber.
The southeastern state had planned to execute eight inmates in 11 days, the most of any state in as short a period since the U.S. Supreme Court reinstated the death penalty in 1976.
Courts have halted four of those executions. The state's plan prompted an unprecedented flurry of legal filings and raised questions about U.S. death chamber protocols and lethal injection drug mixes. Back-to-back executions set for Monday were indefinitely halted.
It was unclear if Lee's execution would go ahead on Thursday night. The U.S. Supreme Court has not ruled on three petitions from Arkansas death row inmates to halt the proceedings. Lee's lawyer also made an emergency filing with a U.S. court in Little Rock about an hour before his scheduled execution.
The Arkansas Supreme Court on Thursday denied Lee's request to halt his execution. Lee was convicted and sentenced to death for beating Debra Reese to death with a tire iron in 1993.
In ruling on the state's lethal injection drug, the Arkansas Supreme Court agreed with the state that it did nothing illegal in acquiring the muscle relaxant vecuronium bromide, one of three drugs used in its lethal injections, and lifted an order by a state circuit judge on Wednesday that blocked its use.
U.S. pharmaceutical wholesaler McKesson Medical-Surgical Inc accused the state of obtaining the drug under false pretences.
Arkansas had also planned to execute convicted murderer Stacey Johnson on Thursday. But the Arkansas Supreme Court on Wednesday issued a halt to Johnson's execution after he requested DNA testing he said could prove his innocence.
The attorney general's office said on Thursday it would not appeal the decision, meaning his planned execution was off. Johnson was convicted of the 1993 murder and sexual assault of Carol Heath.
Republican Governor Asa Hutchinson set the execution schedule because another of the three drugs used in Arkansas executions, the sedative midazolam, expires at month's end. The state's protocol calls for use of midazolam to render the inmate unconscious, vecuronium bromide to stop breathing and a third chemical that causes cardiac arrest.
(Reporting by Steve Barnes in Little Rock, Arkansas, and Jon Herskovitz in Austin, Texas; writing by Jon Herskovitz; editing by Sandra Maler and Cynthia Osterman)