Miami (AFP) - A legal battle over the death sentence in the US state of Arkansas has seen skirmishes and retreats, but it's not over yet. Two death row inmates won reprieves on Monday, but five others still face execution in the coming days.
After the US Supreme Court and the Arkansas Supreme Court delivered the stays, Arkansas authorities vowed to push on with their state's first executions since 2005.
Ledell Lee and Stacey Johnson are scheduled to receive lethal injections on Thursday. The other three prisoners are to be executed next week: Jack Harold Jones, Marcel Williams on Monday and Kenneth Williams on Thursday April 27, a spokesman for the state attorney general, Judd Deere, told AFP.
Arkansas' Governor Asa Hutchinson, a Republican, had planned for eight men on death row to be executed within an 11-day period before the end of April, when the state's stock of midazolam, a sedative used in the lethal injections, expires.
But amid public opposition to the death penalty, including protests in the state capital Little Rock including actor Johnny Depp and a judge linked to one of the cases, lawyers obtained stays for three of the executions.
Jason McGehee, who was to be put to death on April 27, received a month-long stay two weeks ago because of a parole board's clemency recommendation.
Then, last Friday, Arkansas' Supreme Court suspended -- with no explanation -- the execution of prisoner Bruce Ward planned for Monday.
And late on Monday, after inmate Don Davis ate what was supposed to be his "last meal" and just minutes before his execution, the US Supreme Court gave a last-minute ruling sparing him.
But Arkansas' attorney general, Leslie Rutledge, has pledged to overcome the stays and haul Ward and Davis back into the death chamber.
"The attorney general will go back to the state supreme court and address the merits in both cases brought by Ward and Davis," Deere said. "Until the merits are decided, the stay remains in place."
The lawyers for those two prisoners said their clients suffered serious psychological problems but that their defense attorneys had presented no mental health experts during their trials that results in the death penalty.
"They clearly demonstrated that mental health issues would be significant factors at their trials," said public defender Scott Braden.
- DNA test requests -
Death-penalty abolitionists are now putting in motion legal machinery to try to prevent the executions of Ledell Lee and Stacey Johnson on Thursday, laying the scene for another dramatic judicial battle.
Last week, Stacey Johnson's lawyer lodged a request for a DNA test to verify whether his client's protestations of innocence were founded. Johnson, a black man, was sentenced for the 1993 murder of a white woman.
Paul Cates, from a group known as the Innocence Project that fights the death penalty, said the trial court had rejected a DNA test. His group was filing an appeal before the Arkansas Supreme Court on that basis.
There was also an appeal aimed at obtaining a stay for Ledell Lee. America's biggest civil rights organization, the ACLU, brought the motion before a lower Arkansas court on Monday that requests a pause to also carry out a DNA test.
Lee, who is also black, was sentenced to death in 1993 for the murder of his neighbor, a white woman. The ACLU argues he should not have been found guilty.
At the same time as the legal thrusts and parries, there are challenges to the state's use of the drug used in the lethal injections.
McKesson Medical-Surgical, a distributor for pharmaceutical giant Pfizer, had asked courts to ban the use of a paralytic it sells, vecuronium bromide, in the chemical cocktail used to kill prisoners.
A lower court judge ruled in favor last Friday. But then an appeals court suspended that injunction, allowing the state to go ahead with using the drug.
However, "the prisoners are preparing a petition to ask the US Supreme Court to review that," Rob Dunham, executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center, told AFP on Tuesday.
If they win that case, the death-penalty abolitionists might win the war in Arkansas -- if only temporarily.