Arkansas’ first execution in 12 years has prompted accusations it is rushing prisoners to their deaths due to a shortage of lethal injection drugs.
Ledell Lee, 51, was condemned to death for the murder of Debra Reese in 1993, died at 11:56pm local time on Thursday.
Lee believed new DNA testing would prove his innocence and at one point on Thursday the Supreme Court almost halted his execution.
He had won reprieves in federal and state courts, but they were overturned in a week where courts were besieged with lawsuits and appeals.
Lee’s case was one of eight the state wanted to conclude in four double executions over 11 days - dubbed a “cruel and unusual killing spree” - that has illuminated a plethora of troubling issues behind the use of the death penalty in America.
Who Was Ledell Lee?
Ledell Lee was convicted in 1995 of beating 26-year-old Reese, his neighbour, to death with a tyre iron her husband was said to have given her for protection. He was also accused of strangling her.
She, was found dead in her home in Jacksonville, Arkansas.
Despite several of her neighbours putting Lee at the scene and identifying him to police, the 51-year-old always maintained his innocence.
Lee did not make a final statement before his execution and instead of a last meal, he asked to receive communion, an official said.
Was he fairly treated?
One of Lee’s lawyers, Nina Morrison, said her client’s execution “denied him the opportunity to conduct DNA testing that could have proven his innocence”.
She continued: “While reasonable people can disagree on whether death is an appropriate form of punishment, no one should be executed when there is a possibility that person is innocent.”
Morrison added it was “inappropriate for the state to rush to execute before a defendant’s innocence claim can be properly examined”.
“All we are asking for is a hearing on Mr. Lee’s claim that modern DNA testing can prove his innocence,” she said.
Lee had won earlier reprieves in federal and state courts that would have halted his execution, but they were overturned.
In an interview with the BBC, he said life on death row was a “living nightmare”.
While Lee’s legal team unsuccessfully sought to halt his execution, Arkansas dropped plans to execute another inmate, Stacey Johnson after the Supreme Court rejected a request to reconsider his stay, issued so he could seek more DNA tests in the hope of proving his innocence, CBS News reported.
Republican Governor Asa Hutchinson, who set the execution schedule less than two months ago, along with the state’s elected prosecutors, issued a joint statement on Thursday criticising the inmates for trying to halt their executions.
“Through the manipulation of the judicial system, these men continue to torment the victims’ families in seeking, by any means, to avoid their just punishment.”
Arkansas Attorney General Deborah Rutledge said in a statement that Lee’s victim’s family “had waited 24 years to see justice done” and that she hoped his “lawful execution helps bring closure for the Reese family”.
Do victims’ families really want the death penalty?
The widower of one of Lee’s alleged victims told the BBC that if he had been told from the outset that his wife’s killer would serve a life sentence without parole, he may have been able to move on.
However, he said that he prospect of the man’s execution, which arose and disappeared continuously, “means reliving the hurt of the murder itself, and that every stay of execution now feels like an insult to his wife”.
Who else was on Arkansas’ April death list?
Arkansas was trying to execute eight death row inmates - all murderers - before their supply of a drug used in lethal injections ran out on April 30.
Don Davis and Bruce Ward were to be executed on April 17, Stacey Johnson was due to die on Thursday - when Lee was executed - Marcel Williams and Jack Jones on April 24, and Kenneth Williams and Jason McGehee on April 27.
What the seven other death row men were convicted of:
Bruce Ward strangled teenage shop clerk Rebecca Doss.
Don Davis was sent to death row for the execution-style killing of Jane Daniel while he burgled her home.
Stacey Johnson beat and strangled Carol Heath and slit her throat.
Jack Jones raped and murdered clerk Mary Phillips and almost beat her 11-year-old daughter to death.
Marcel Williams kidnapped Stacey Erickson from a convenience store before raping and murdering her.
Kenneth Williams murdered farmer Cecil Boren after escaping from prison where he was serving time for the murder of cheerleader Dominique Hurd.
Why were the execution plans so controversial?
Arkansas’ plans to execute the men prompted a string of legal challenges and constitutional debates because the state wanted to complete them before its supply of the drug, midazolam - used together in lethal injections with two other drugs - expired.
The eight executions would have been the most by a state in such a short time frame since the death penalty was reinstated in 1976.
Robert Dunham, a former director of the Death Penalty Info Centre, put Arkansas’s expiry date consideration into blunt terms.
“What Arkansas has essentially done is taken the concept of the use-by date, and converted it to a kill-by date.”
The drug companies also fought the executions
Midazolam is part of a “cocktail” of three drugs Arkansas uses to execute death row inmates.
It is used to render the prisoner unconscious, while vecuronium bromide is used to halt breathing, and potassium chloride to stop the heart.
Pulaski County Circuit Judge Alice Gray had made an order halting the use of vecuronium bromide in the state’s lethal injection process, but Justices on Thursday overturned it.
The McKesson Corporation had claimed the state obtained the drug from them without declaring what it would use it fo. It said it wanted nothing to do with the executions, CBS news reported.
“We believe we have done all we can do at this time to recover our product,” the company said in a statement.
Justices also denied an attempt by makers of midazolam and potassium chloride to intervene in McKesson’s fight over vecuronium bromide.
The pharmaceutical companies said there is a public health risk if their drugs are diverted for use in executions, CBS reported, and that the state’s possession of the drugs violates rules within their distribution networks.
There’s also concerns about how the drugs work together
Cassandra Stubbs, the director of ACLU’s Capital Punishment Project, says the cocktail of drugs used by Arkansas “risks that the prisoner will feel as if he is being burned alive from the inside while paralysed. We know this because it has happened before.”
Stubbs told Al Jazeera of two cases. One involved Ronald Smith who “moved and gasped” for more than 10 minutes after he was injected in December last year and Joseph Wood, who “gasped for air” for two hours in July 2014.