Gorsuch's First Big Supreme Court Vote Allows Arkansas Execution

  • Justices vote 5-4 to let state start lethal injections
  • Convicted murderer Ledell Lee subsequently put to death

Justice Anthony Kennedy Administers The Judicial Oath To Judge Neil Gorsuch At The White House

Justice Neil Gorsuch took his first major action on the U.S. Supreme Court by casting the deciding vote to let Arkansas begin executing a group of death-row inmates.

In a series of orders Thursday night, the high court cleared the state to execute Ledell Lee, one of eight convicted murderers that Arkansas has been trying to put to death before one of its lethal-injection drugs expires at the end of the month. Arkansas executed Lee minutes after the court rejected the last of his requests.

Ledell Lee

Source: Arkansas Department of Corrections via EPA

Gorsuch joined his four fellow Republican appointees -- Chief Justice John Roberts and Justices Clarence Thomas, Anthony Kennedy and Samuel Alito -- in the majority. They didn’t explain their reasons.

The court’s four liberal justices each voted to grant at least one of the requests to halt the executions. Justice Stephen Breyer said the state didn’t have an adequate reason to rush. 

“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," Breyer wrote. "That factor, when considered as a determining factor separating those who live from those who die, is close to random."

Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan also voted to block the executions.

The inmates said the state’s drug protocol, which includes the controversial sedative midazolam, puts them at risk of an unnecessarily painful death. They said the odds were increased by Governor Asa Hutchinson’s original plan to execute all eight of them over the course of 11 days. 

The state has scaled back its plans in the face of orders from other courts affecting some of the inmates. Arkansas had been planning to execute four inmates this week.

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Arkansas, which hadn’t executed anyone since 2005, is among states that have had difficulty acquiring the drugs it needs for lethal injections, largely because of restrictions imposed by pharmaceutical companies.

Lee was convicted of the 1993 strangulation of Debra Reese in a Little Rock suburb. He maintained his innocence and his lawyers were seeking additional DNA testing.

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