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updated: 4/21/2017 10:29 AM

Arkansas conducts first execution since 2005, plans 3 more

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  • FILE - In this Tuesday, April 18, 2017 file photo, Ledell Lee appears in Pulaski County Circuit Court for a hearing in which lawyers argued to stop his execution which is scheduled for Thursday. Unless a court steps in, Lee and Stacey Johnson are set for execution Thursday night. Lee was sentenced to death after being convicted of killing Debra Reese with a tire iron in February 1993 in Jacksonville. (Benjamin Krain/The Arkansas Democrat-Gazette via AP, File)

    FILE - In this Tuesday, April 18, 2017 file photo, Ledell Lee appears in Pulaski County Circuit Court for a hearing in which lawyers argued to stop his execution which is scheduled for Thursday. Unless a court steps in, Lee and Stacey Johnson are set for execution Thursday night. Lee was sentenced to death after being convicted of killing Debra Reese with a tire iron in February 1993 in Jacksonville. (Benjamin Krain/The Arkansas Democrat-Gazette via AP, File)
    Associated Press

  • Media witnesses speak about the late Thursday night execution of Ledell Lee in Varner, Ark., early Friday, April 21, 2017. Lee was the first inmate put to death in the state since 2005. John Moritz of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, from left, Sean Murphy of The Associated Press and Marine Glisovic witnessed Lee's death.

    Media witnesses speak about the late Thursday night execution of Ledell Lee in Varner, Ark., early Friday, April 21, 2017. Lee was the first inmate put to death in the state since 2005. John Moritz of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, from left, Sean Murphy of The Associated Press and Marine Glisovic witnessed Lee's death.
    Associated Press

  • J.R. Davis, a spokesman for Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson, speaks with reporters early Friday, April 21, 2017, following the execution of death row inmate Ledell Lee. Lee's death late Thursday night was Arkansas' first execution since 2005.

    J.R. Davis, a spokesman for Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson, speaks with reporters early Friday, April 21, 2017, following the execution of death row inmate Ledell Lee. Lee's death late Thursday night was Arkansas' first execution since 2005.
    Associated Press

  • Solomon Graves, a spokesman for the Arkansas Department of Correction, waits at a desk for a telephone call with news from the death chamber at the Cummins Unit prison near Varner, Ark., on Thursday, April 20, 2017. The U.S. Supreme Court rejected stay requests from Ledell Lee, allowing his execution to proceed at the prison.

    Solomon Graves, a spokesman for the Arkansas Department of Correction, waits at a desk for a telephone call with news from the death chamber at the Cummins Unit prison near Varner, Ark., on Thursday, April 20, 2017. The U.S. Supreme Court rejected stay requests from Ledell Lee, allowing his execution to proceed at the prison.
    Associated Press

  • Solomon Graves, a spokesman for the Arkansas Department of Correction, waits at a desk behind an Arkansas flag for a telephone call with news from the death chamber at the Cummins Unit prison on Thursday, April 20, 2017. The U.S. Supreme Court rejected stay requests from Ledell Lee, allowing his execution to proceed at the prison near Varner, Ark.

    Solomon Graves, a spokesman for the Arkansas Department of Correction, waits at a desk behind an Arkansas flag for a telephone call with news from the death chamber at the Cummins Unit prison on Thursday, April 20, 2017. The U.S. Supreme Court rejected stay requests from Ledell Lee, allowing his execution to proceed at the prison near Varner, Ark.
    Associated Press

  • Scott Langley of Ghent, New York, holds a sign near the Cummins Unit prison near Varner, Arkansas, to protest executions set for Thursday, April 20, 2017. Arkansas adopted an aggressive schedule of eight executions in an 11-day period, but stays have been issued for four of the men initially set to die.

    Scott Langley of Ghent, New York, holds a sign near the Cummins Unit prison near Varner, Arkansas, to protest executions set for Thursday, April 20, 2017. Arkansas adopted an aggressive schedule of eight executions in an 11-day period, but stays have been issued for four of the men initially set to die.
    Associated Press

  • A recruiting sign for the Arkansas Department of Correction greets visitors to the Cummins Unit prison near Varner, Arkansas, which was scheduled to hold executions Thursday, April 20, 2017. If any inmate dies by lethal injection, it would be the state's first execution since 2005.

    A recruiting sign for the Arkansas Department of Correction greets visitors to the Cummins Unit prison near Varner, Arkansas, which was scheduled to hold executions Thursday, April 20, 2017. If any inmate dies by lethal injection, it would be the state's first execution since 2005.
    Associated Press

 
 

VARNER, Ark. -- Arkansas carried out its first execution in nearly a dozen years despite a flurry of legal challenges that spared three convicted killers, but courts still could scuttle the remainder of the nation's most ambitious death penalty schedule since capital punishment was restored in 1976.

Ledell Lee was pronounced dead minutes before midnight Thursday, capping a chaotic week of legal wrangling. Arkansas originally wanted to put eight inmates to death before the state's supply of midazolam, one of three drugs used in its lethal injection process, expires at the end of April.

Three of those executions were canceled this week because of court decisions. Another inmate scheduled for execution next week has received a stay. But Arkansas wants to put two other inmates to death Monday and another one next Thursday.

Lee, 51, was put on death row for the 1993 death of his neighbor Debra Reese, who was struck 36 times with a tire tool her husband had given her for protection. Lee was arrested less than an hour after the killing after spending some of the $300 he had stolen from Reese.

The execution was carried out without any apparent glitches. There had been concern because midazolam was used in some flawed executions in other states.

Lee showed no signs of consciousness two minutes after the injection began. He made no final statement and showed no apparent signs of suffering during the execution.

The state originally set four double executions over an 11-day period in April. That would have been the most by a state in such a compressed period since the U.S. Supreme Court reinstated the death penalty in 1976.

Lee's execution went ahead after the U.S. Supreme Court rejected last-minute appeals from his lawyers. But at least one high court justice expressed serious reservations about what critics have called Arkansas' rush to the death chamber.

"Apparently the reason the state decided to proceed with these eight executions is that the 'use by' date of the state's execution drug is about to expire...In my view, that factor, when considered as a determining factor separating those who live from those who die, is close to random," Justice Stephen Breyer wrote.

Arkansas dropped plans to execute a second inmate, Stacey Johnson, on Thursday after the state Supreme Court said it would not reconsider his stay, which was issued so Johnson could seek more DNA tests in hopes of proving his innocence.

State justices also on Thursday reversed an order by Pulaski County Circuit Judge Alice Gray that halted the use of vecuronium bromide, one of three drugs used in the state's lethal-injection process. McKesson Corp. says the state obtained the drug under false pretenses and that it wants nothing to do with executions.

Justices also denied an attempt by makers of midazolam and potassium chloride - the two other drugs in Arkansas' execution plan - to intervene in McKesson's fight over the vecuronium bromide. The pharmaceutical companies object to the use of their drugs in executions and say the state's possession of the drugs violates rules within their distribution networks.

The legal delays frustrated Gov. Asa Hutchinson and other state officials. Lawyers for the state have complained that the inmates are filing court papers just to run out the clock. Prisons Director Wendy Kelley has said the state has no way to obtain more midazolam or vecuronium bromide.

But after the resumption of the death penalty on Thursday, Hutchinson's spokesman J.R. Davis said, "Justice was carried out."

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Associated Press writers Jill Bleed in Little Rock, Kelly P. Kissel in Varner and Mark Sherman in Washington contributed to this report. DeMillo reported from Little Rock.

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Follow Andrew DeMillo at www.twitter.com/ademillo and Sean Murphy at www.twitter.com/apseanmurphy .

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