Judge to hear arguments in Ark. execution lawsuit
LITTLE ROCK, Ark. (AP) -- A judge will hear oral arguments next month in a lawsuit challenging Arkansas' new lethal injection law.
The arguments, set for Jan. 17 in Little Rock, mark the next step in the latest legal battle over executions in Arkansas, but it will likely be months - if not longer - before the state puts a condemned prisoner to death for the first time since 2005.
Nine death row inmates are suing the state over an execution law that legislators enacted this year. That new law came about after the Arkansas Supreme Court struck down the previous law in 2012, saying legislators had ceded too much control over execution procedures to corrections officials.
Both the inmates and the state have filed separate requests for summary judgment - meaning they want the judge to decide the case without having a full trial. But they want different outcomes.
The inmates say the new law still gives too much power to the state's Department of Correction, so they want a judge to declare it unconstitutional. The state, meanwhile, wants a judge to uphold the law.
No matter what the judge decides, the legal challenge from the nine death row inmates will almost certainly end up in front of the Arkansas Supreme Court.
And experts say even more legal challenges seeking to block the state from executing condemned prisoners are likely.
"The nine plaintiffs in this case were convicted of capital murder and sentenced to death many years ago, during the period 1990 to 2000," Assistant Attorney General David Curran wrote in a court filing earlier this year. "To delay or avoid having their death sentences carried out, the Prisoners have been involved in numerous appeals and lawsuits ..."
Arkansas doesn't have executions scheduled for any of its death row inmates, in part because of such legal challenges. Gov. Mike Beebe said in June that he didn't have any immediate plans to schedule executions, and spokesman Matt DeCample said that hadn't changed as of Monday.
Plus, the state has said it plans to rewrite its lethal injection protocol to include a different drug or drugs.
The new law that legislators enacted this year says the state must use a lethal dose of a barbiturate in lethal injections. However, the law leaves it up to the Department of Correction to pick the drug - a move that critics say still gives too much control to the prisons.
The Associated Press first reported in April that Arkansas planned to use an anti-seizure drug called phenobarbital in executions, even though that chemical has never been used in a lethal injection in the United States. But the Department of Correction has since backed off and said it plans to rewrite its protocol to include a different drug or drugs.
Department of Correction spokeswoman Shea Wilson said Monday that the agency doesn't have a new procedure yet.
Arkansas says it has 37 inmates on death row, but a judge recently granted a new trial for one of them.
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