Editor’s note: Story updated to reflect the news that inmate Stacey Johnson’s stay of execution has been upheld and will not be appealed, and that attorneys for Ledell Lee filed a civil rights lawsuit in federal court in an attempt to stop his execution.
Arkansas officials were moving ahead as of early Thursday evening (April 20) with the process to execute death row inmate Ledell Lee, but the planned execution of inmate Stacey Johnson will not happen.
The execution of Lee, if it moves forward, is set to begin at 7 p.m.
Late efforts by Lee’s attorneys for a stay of execution based on various claims were denied by the Arkansas Supreme Court. Arkansas Attorney General Leslie Rutledge has filed a motion with the Arkansas Supreme Court asking the body to reverse its decision to stay Johnson’s execution. The court denied her request, and Rutledge spokesman Judd Deere said she would not seek an appeal with the U.S. Supreme Court.
Attorneys with the Innocence Project filed a civil rights lawsuit in the U.S. District Court of Eastern Arkansas claiming that DNA testing could prove his innocence.
“It is inappropriate for the state to rush to execute before a defendant’s innocence claim can be properly examined. All we are asking for is a hearing on Mr. Lee’s claim that modern DNA testing can prove his innocence. The federal court must now step in to ensure that Arkansas does not put an innocent man to death,” Nina Morrison, a senior staff attorney with the Innocence Project, which is affiliated with Cardozo School of Law, noted in a statement to the media.
The executions of Lee and Johnson are part of what was originally an order by Gov. Asa Hutchinson to execute eight inmates between April 17 and April 27. The original execution schedule was:
• April 17: Don Davis, Bruce Ward;
• April 20: Stacey Johnson, Ledelle Lee;
• April 24: Marcel Williams, Jack Jones; and
• April 27: Jason McGehee, Kenneth Williams.
However, Ward was granted a stay of execution by the Arkansas Supreme Court. More than four hours after Davis was scheduled to enter the execution chamber at the Arkansas Department of Corrections’ Cummins Unit facility in the Delta community of Grady, the U.S. Supreme Court gave him a life-saving reprieve a few minutes before midnight.
McGehee is also not going to be executed in April. The State Parole Board on April 4 recommended the governor grant clemency to McGehee. On April 6, U.S. District Court Judge D. Price Marshall ruled that there must be at least a 30-day period before the Parole Board makes that recommendation. That would place McGehee’s execution past April 30, when the state’s supply of midazolam, one of three drugs used in its executions, expires.
The Arkansas Supreme Court on Wednesday issued a stay for the execution of Johnson. In a 4-3, decision, the Arkansas high court ruled that Johnson has the right to a full evidentiary hearing on his request for DNA testing to prove his innocence.
Also, Pulaski County Circuit Court Judge Alice Gray on Wednesday orally granted McKesson Medical-Surgical a temporary restraining order that would postpone Lee’s and Johnson’s executions and the three other death sentences. That lawsuit alleged that Arkansas officials improperly acquired drugs from the company, planned to use them in executions, and failed to return the drugs when the state was refunded its money.
However, early Thursday afternoon the Arkansas Supreme Court granted a request from Rutledge to stay Judge Gray’s order. That cleared the way for Lee’s execution to move forward.
Johnson was convicted of the murder of Carol Jean Heath, who was attacked in her home in early April of 1993. He was tried twice for the crime, and his conviction and death sentence rested largely on biological evidence and the testimony of the victim’s six-year-old daughter who identified Johnson as the killer.
Lee was convicted of killing Jacksonville resident Debra Reese on March 24, 1997. The 26-year old murder victim was found brutally murdered in her home in Jacksonville on Feb. 9, 1993. She had been beaten some thirty-six times with a tire thumper, a tool resembling a baseball bat that her husband Billy, a truck driver, had given to her for protection while he was away.