CUMMINS UNIT, Ark. — The United States Supreme Court rejected a request by the state of Arkansas early Tuesday to execute the first prisoner in a tight schedule of eight death sentences it planned to complete before the end of the month.
The decision was the culmination of a chaotic day of legal arguments, as Arkansas attempts to carry out its first executions in 12 years before its supply of lethal-injection drugs expires at the end of the month.
The high court gave no explanation for its ruling, but said it would not lift an order made by the Arkansas Supreme Court on Monday to stop the executions of two inmates set to be put to death that night. They were scheduled to be the first of eight people put to death in the space of 10 days.
The Supreme Court's decision came 10 minutes before the death warrant expired for one of these men, 56-year-old Don Davis.
Volunteer witnesses had been moved to the execution chamber while local media organizations — who were not allowed pens, paper or any recording devices — waited nearby in prison vans.
Davis had already been moved to the Cummins Unit — where the lethal injection gurney is located — and he was even given his last meal. In fact, it was his second "last meal," the first coming in 2010 before his execution was stayed at the last minute.
This time, he ate "fried chicken, rolls, great northern beans and mashed potatoes, fruit punch and strawberry cake for dessert," Solomon Graves, the spokesman for the Arkansas Department of Corrections (ADC), said.
Davis' leftover cake was made available to reporters. Very few pieces were eaten.
The inmate was sentenced to death in 1990 for killing a 62-year-old woman named Jane Daniel during a burglary at her home in Rogers, Arkansas.
Before the decision came in, Graves, the ADC spokesman, sat hunched over a telephone connected directly to the Arkansas death house. But the ruling was not delivered by phone but by a member of ADC staff.
Addressing reporters after the decision, he explained that Davis would soon be returned to death row and that the staff had been prepared for the long evening and would be similarly prepared in the future.
"The Department of Corrections' attention now shifts to the executions that are scheduled for Thursday," Graves said. "At this point, there are no stays in place."
J.R. Davis, director of communications for Gov. Asa Hutchinson, said: "I would encourage you to remember the victims throughout this process and their families who have had to go through this nightmare. Tonight the justice they were hoping to get, they once again will not receive."
Davis and fellow inmate Bruce Ward were the first two men scheduled to die in the 10-day spate of executions. They had requested a delay Wednesday, citing the need to wait for the conclusion of a U.S. Supreme Court case, McWilliams v. Dunn.
Oral arguments for that case aren't expected until April 24 and will discuss inmates' rights for an independent expert to assess their health.
Both inmates' lawyers claim their clients are too mentally impaired to face capital punishment and were not offered a proper mental health screening.
Executing either man before the conclusion of McWilliams v. Dunn would be "profoundly arbitrary and unjust," according to Arkansas Assistant Federal Defense Attorney Scott Braden, who is representing Ward.
The Arkansas Department of Corrections had, nevertheless, prepared for Davis' execution Monday night while lawyers for the state asked the U.S. Supreme Court to allow the death sentences to be carried out. But the Supreme Court declined to intervene early Tuesday, leaving the state supreme court's stay in effect and sparing Davis' life for the time being.
Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson said he was "disappointed" by the ruling. "While this has been an exhausting day for all involved, tomorrow we will continue to fight back on last minute appeals and efforts to block justice for the victims' families," Hutchinson said.
The Supreme Court's decision came down on Neil Gorsuch's first day as justice. It is unknown how the fledgling judge voted, though the governor's office indicated that all nine justices discussed the issue for hours before coming to a decision.
The governor's office does not believe that Davis and Ward's executions could be scheduled before the end of April, which means they are unlikely to face the death penalty for the foreseeable future because one of the state's lethal injection drugs is set to expire on April 30.
The remaining inmates who are to be put to death before the end of the month are expected to appeal the 8th circuit's decision to the Supreme Court as well. If taken by the country's highest court, the justices would have to give a more definitive answer about the controversial drug midazolam — the first drug in Arkansas's lethal injection cocktail.