Arkansas high court lifts stays for 2 death row inmates

FILE - This March 25, 2017, file photo, shows a sign for the Department of Correction's Cummins Unit prison in Varner, Ark. The state Department of Correction said Wednesday, Feb. 28, 2018, that it had not yet acquired a new supply of vecuronium bromide to replace one that expires Thursday. Vecuronium bromide is one of three drugs Arkansas uses to execute prisoners. (AP Photo/Kelly P. Kissel, File)

LITTLE ROCK, Ark. - Arkansas' Supreme Court on Thursday lifted stays of execution for two condemned killers, saying they were not entitled to special assistance from mental health professionals before and during their trials.

Bruce Ward and Don Davis were among eight prisoners scheduled to die over 11 days last spring, but their April 17 executions were postponed so the state's high court could consider their arguments that, by law, independent psychiatrists should have been available to help develop trial strategies. Lawyers for the state argued that the men didn't meet the minimum threshold to qualify for such aid and that they were "sandbagging" the court to delay their executions.

The court said the men's mental health issues had been sufficiently addressed.

"While the U.S. Constitution guarantees a right to a competent psychiatrist, it does not guarantee a psychiatrist who will reach the medical conclusions the defence team desires," Justice Shawn Womack wrote as the court unanimously moved Davis closer to the execution chamber.

Justice Karen Baker used similar language as the court voted 5-2 against Ward. She said his latest argument "rehashes" previous ones and noted he refused to co-operate in previous mental health evaluations at the state hospital.

The federal public defender's office has 90 days in which to appeal the rulings to the U.S. Supreme Court, and it intends to do so, lawyer Scott Braden said. "The psychiatrist has to be independent and available. Just sending someone to the state hospital is not sufficient."

Attorney General Leslie Rutledge said that once her office confirms Davis' status in the courts, the next step would be asking Gov. Asa Hutchinson to set an execution date.

"Ward does have an active case before the Supreme Court still. Davis does not, so he has exhausted all his appeals," she said. "I will be discussing with my team to ensure that is in the fact the case."

Davis, 55, was convicted of killing Jane Daniel after breaking into her Rogers home in 1990 and shooting her with a .44-calibre revolver he found there. Ward, 61, was convicted in 1990 for the strangulation death of convenience store clerk Rebecca Lynn Doss, 18.

Arkansas had planned to execute eight prisoners over 11 days last spring — Ward first and Davis second — because its supply of an execution drug was about to expire, but it only executed four in eight days.

From the state's current drug supply, the muscle relaxant vecuronium bromide, which stops the inmate's lungs, is set to expire after midnight on Thursday. The state's potassium chloride, which stops the heart, expires Aug. 31 and its sedative midazolam is good through Jan. 31, 2019.

Hutchinson said he had not heard from the Department of Correction on whether it has an adequate supply of drugs, but that he would take the "appropriate steps" if Rutledge tells him Davis could be executed.

Twice in the past year, Arkansas' Department of Correction has shown it can obtain additional supplies.

In the cases decided Thursday, the inmates said they had failed to receive assistance required after a 1985 U.S. Supreme Court targeting mentally ill indigent defendants. The U.S. Supreme Court reviewed that decision last spring but left it largely unchanged.

In separate cases still pending, Ward and Jack Greene each say Arkansas' prison system director, Wendy Kelley, shouldn't be an "arbiter of sanity" and declare them eligible for execution because her boss, Republican Gov. Asa Hutchinson, sets execution dates.

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Associated Press writer Andrew DeMillo contributed to this report.

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Follow Kelly P. Kissel on Twitter: https://twitter.com/kisselAP


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