Arkansas high court lifts stays for 2 death row inmates

By: 
The Associated Press

LITTLE ROCK, Ark. (AP) — 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 that 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.

Writing for the majority, Justice Karen Baker said Ward's new argument "rehashes" previous ones and noted he had refused to cooperate in mental health evaluations at the state hospital when given the opportunity.

"The defendant does not have a constitutional right to search for a psychiatrist of his personal liking or to receive funds to hire his own, but is entitled to a competent psychiatrist and the examination afford to Ward satisfied that right," she wrote, citing a 2015 decision in a Ward case.

In the other case, which was argued separately but covered similar issues, Justice Shawn Womack wrote that a review of Davis' hyperactivity disorder determined he did not suffer from a mental disease and that his lawyers found no sign that an independent expert would reach a different conclusion.

"Davis made the strategic decision to not pursue a partisan psychiatrist," Womack wrote. "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 defense team desires."

Ward still has a separate case pending on whether Arkansas' prison system director, Wendy Kelley, is qualified to determine whether he is currently sane enough to be executed. He and another condemned inmate, Jack Greene, argue that Kelley shouldn't be their "arbiter of sanity" because her boss, Republican Gov. Asa Hutchinson, sets execution dates. Filings from the state in Greene's case are due March 23. The court has agreed to hear oral arguments in Ward's still-pending case.

In the cases decided Thursday, the inmates had said they had failed to receive assistance required after a 1985 U.S. Supreme Court targeting mentally ill indigent defendants. When the men asked for stays last April, the U.S. Supreme Court was reviewing its 1985 decision, but the justices ultimately didn't change it significantly.

Arkansas planned to execute eight prisoners over 11-days last spring because its supply of an execution drug was about to expire, but it only executed four in eight days.

The state's supply of one of its three execution drugs, the muscle relaxant vecuronium bromide, which stops the inmate's lungs, is set to expire after midnight on Thursday. The state's potassium chloride supply expires Aug. 31 and its midazolam is good through Jan. 31, 2019.

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