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Arkansas Conducts First Execution In Years After U.S. Supreme Court Clears Path

A ruling from the state Supreme Court allowing officials to use a lethal injection drug that a supplier says was misleadingly obtained cleared the way for Arkansas to execute Ledell Lee late Thursday.
A ruling from the state Supreme Court allowing officials to use a lethal injection drug that a supplier says was misleadingly obtained cleared the way for Arkansas to execute Ledell Lee late Thursday.

Updated at 2 a.m. ET

Arkansas has carried out its first execution since 2005, just minutes before the expiration of the inmate's death warrant.

Ledell Lee was executed by lethal injection minutes before midnight Friday Central time in Grady, Ark. at the Cummins Unit facility, shortly before the warrant was set to expire.

Lee was pronounced dead at 11:56 p.m. Thursday, NPR member station KUAR Public Radio reports.

About 30 minutes before, the U.S. Supreme Court cleared the way for the state to proceed with Lee's execution. Lee was sentenced to death for the murder of Debra Reese in 1993.

"I pray this lawful execution helps bring closure for the Reese family," Arkansas Attorney General Leslie Rutledge said in a statement.

The execution began at 11:44 p.m., and Lee's eyes "began drooping" about a minute later, according to an Associated Press reporter who witnessed the execution. The AP says he "showed no apparent signs of suffering" and "lost consciousness quickly."

The wire service reports that Lee made no final statement.

"The governor knows the right thing was done tonight," J.R. Davis, a spokesman for Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson, told the AP. "Justice was carried out."

The state's "rush" to execute Lee "denied him the opportunity to conduct DNA testing that could have proven his innocence," Senior Staff Attorney Nina Morrison of the Innocence Project said in a statement. "While reasonable people can disagree on whether death is an appropriate form of punishment, no one should be executed when there is a possibility that person is innocent."

Morrison, who represented Lee with the ACLU, added that the 51-year-old Lee "proclaimed his innocence" for 24 years, until his execution.

Earlier, on Thursday, Arkansas's highest court lifted one of many obstacles to the state's original plan to carry out several executions by the end of the month.

In a Thursday ruling, the Arkansas Supreme Court lifted an order forbidding the state to use one of three lethal injection drugs. The state Supreme Court reversed a ruling by a lower court in favor of a drug supplier. The company had argued that the drug, vecuronium bromide, had been purchased under false pretenses.

McKesson Corp. had "claimed that the state deliberately circumvented [company restrictions] to use the drugs for executions. [The firm was] told the drug would only be used in prison health clinics for its proper medicinal use, as opposed to putting prisoners to death," KUAR's Jacob Kauffman told Morning Edition.

Pulaski County Circuit Judge Alice Gray had sided with the San Francisco-based company, saying that the execution drug "was essentially obtained illegally by the state."

Gray's decision had effectively stayed all scheduled executions. But the decision by Arkansas' high court allowed for Lee's execution on Thursday night.

Arkansas had initially scheduled eight inmates to die over an 11-day period in April — the fastest pace of executions in decades.

The state has justified the pace of the scheduled executions, saying its supply of another lethal injection drug, the sedative midazolam, expires at the end of April. Arkansas and other states have found it difficult to persuade drug companies to sell drugs for use in capital punishment.

Another execution had been scheduled for Thursday but was stayed by the state Supreme Court on Wednesday. Gov. Asa Hutchinson said he was "surprised and disappointed" by the decision to stay Stacey Johnson's execution.

"When I set the dates, I knew there could be delays in one or more of the cases," Hutchinson said, "but I expected the courts to allow the juries' sentences to be carried out since each case has been reviewed multiple times by the Arkansas Supreme Court, which affirmed the guilt of each."

Johnson and Lee had both said they were innocent. "They both want the use of new DNA technology, new DNA testing, that they haven't gotten since they were first convicted in the early '90s," Kauffman reported.

Earlier Thursday, The Arkansas Democrat-Gazette reported that the state went forward with preparations for the executions despite the previous hold:

"In preparation for their scheduled executions, Johnson and Lee were moved Tuesday to the Cummins Unit, the location of the state's execution chamber, a prisons spokesman said Wednesday.

"The spokesman, Solomon Graves, said the two are being held in separate cells adjacent to the execution chamber, which is a short drive down the road from the Varner Unit, another prison that houses death-row inmates.

"Neither inmate had been moved back to the Varner Unit as of Wednesday evening, and Graves said the prison was awaiting guidance from the governor and attorney general."

Kauffman reported that the uncertainty is stressful for the victims' families. "But in many ways," he says, "it's emotions they've experienced before, since these executions have been going through different legal hurdles for 20 years or so."

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Corrected: April 20, 2017 at 12:00 AM EDT
A previous version of this post misspelled Judge Wendell Griffen's last name as Griffin.
Merrit Kennedy is a reporter for NPR's News Desk. She covers a broad range of issues, from the latest developments out of the Middle East to science research news.
James Doubek is an associate editor and reporter for NPR. He frequently covers breaking news for and NPR's hourly newscast. In 2018, he reported feature stories for NPR's business desk on topics including electric scooters, cryptocurrency, and small business owners who lost out when Amazon made a deal with Apple.