This was just the latest setback for the state's plan to execute eight prisoners before its supply of the sedative midazolam expires at the end of the month.
The state still must overcome other court orders blocking the inmates' executions if it is to carry out any of the lethal injections it had scheduled for the last two weeks of April.
Arkansas had scheduled the series of executions in order to beat the expiration date on its batch of one of the three drugs used in its lethal injection cocktail.
Two other drug companies whose drugs may have been used in the executions, Freesenius (the suppliers of the potassium chloride) and West-Ward Pharmaceuticals (thought to be the suppliers of the midozolam), issued a brief as part of a lawsuit aimed at halting the lethal injections.
"To protect the integrity of the judicial system this court has a duty to ensure that all are given a fair and impartial tribunal", said the Arkansas Supreme Court in its order. Midazolam is the drug set to expire in Arkansas, and it's one of the most controversial because of its role in recent botched executions in which patients remained conscious.
"Immediate reversal is warranted", Arkansas' solicitor general, Lee Rudofsky, wrote Saturday in the state's appeal to the St. Louis-based 8th Circuit.
Justices in a 4-3 decision granted stays Monday afternoon for Don Davis and Bruce Ward.
The state's lawyers pressed the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals to allow the executions to begin, saying that the inmates were simply stalling so a key lethal injection drug would expire. The inmates wanted stays of execution while the U.S. Supreme Court takes up a case concerning access to independent mental health experts by defendants. The inmates say midazolam is unsuitable because it is not a painkiller and could subject them to a cruel and unusual punishment in violation of the U.S. Constitution. Protesters gather outside the state Capitol building on Friday, April 14, 2017, in Little Rock, Ark., to voice their opposition to Arkansas' seven upcoming executions.
A federal judge on Saturday temporarily blocked plans by the state to push through the executions, claiming that Arkansas' rush to execute is reckless and unconstitutional.
Justices on Monday reassigned the cases from Pulaski County Circuit Judge Wendell Griffen. To depict the inmate's experience on the Arkansas death house gurney, he strapped himself to a cot on the sidewalk outside Hutchinson's home.
The Judicial Discipline and Disability Commission confirmed Monday an investigation of Griffen is pending following the state Supreme Court referral. Death penalty critics have cited the case as a reason to oppose capital punishment. Inmates have argued against the three-drug lethal-injection protocol Arkansas plans to use as well as specific elements of their cases and sentences. These drugs also have other medical uses, which can make it tricky to keep them from making it into state prisons that still carry out the death penalty and to keep them from being used for that goal.
If the rulings are overturned by Monday night, the state will be prepared to execute at least one inmate, according to local TV station KATV.
At a federal court hearing last week, prison officials testified they must conduct the executions with their current batch of midazolam, a sedative that is meant to mask the effects of drugs that will shut down the inmates' lungs and hearts. In a petition to that court, Ward's attorneys described him as a diagnosed schizophrenic who has spent decades in solitary confinement without treatment for his mental illness and argued that he was not competent to be executed. But U.S. District Judge Kristine Baker issued stays Saturday so the inmates could pursue a claim that they could suffer "severe pain".
At the heart of the fight is an unprecedented flurry of executions that have pushed Arkansas to the forefront of the American death penalty at a time when states are increasingly retreating from the practice.
In its request that the 8th Circuit review whether the inmates should be spared because of society's "evolving standards of decency", the inmates lawyers say that even the executioners could benefit if Arkansas used a less-compressed timetable. Arkansas hasn't carried out a double execution since 1999.