LITTLE ROCK, Ark. (Reuters) - Arkansas executed its first inmate in 12 years on Thursday after the U.S. Supreme Court rejected the inmate's request to halt the lethal injection in a late-night ruling.
Ledell Lee, 51, was the first to be put to death out of a group of eight men that Arkansas originally planned to execute within a span of 11 days, before the expiration of one of the drugs the state uses for the lethal injection.
The rapid pacing of the planned executions prompted a flurry of legal challenges and renewed a debate over executions in the United States, with lawyers for the inmates arguing that Arkansas was in an unseemly rush that offended standards of decency.
Courts have halted four of those executions as arguments continue over death-penalty protocols, but the Supreme Court denied the petitions for the group. One of them was a 5-4 decision in which new Justice Neil Gorsuch sided with the four other conservative justices in denying the motion, while the court's liberals dissented.
In a dissenting opinion, Justice Stephen Breyer said he took issue with the state trying to use the drugs before their expiration date.
"In my view, that factor, when considered as a determining factor separating those who live from those who die, is close to random," he wrote.
One of the drugs in the Arkansas mix, midazolam, had been used in flawed executions in Oklahoma and Arizona, where witnesses said the inmates appeared to twist in pain on death-chamber gurneys.
The Supreme Court decision cleared the way for Lee's execution, and he was pronounced dead at 11:56 p.m. CDT (0456 GMT Friday) at the state's death chamber in its Cummins Unit prison, a Department of Corrections spokesman said. Lee did not make a final statement.
Lee was convicted and sentenced to death for beating Debra Reese to death with a tire iron in 1993. Reese's relatives were at the Cummins Unit and told media Lee deserved to die for a crime that ripped their lives apart.
Lee had maintained his innocence for years and was seeking DNA tests his lawyers said could prove his innocence. Journalists present said there was no visible reaction from Lee after the drug mix was administered.
"I pray this lawful execution brings closure for the Reese family," Attorney General Leslie Rutledge said in a statement.
(Reporting by Steve Barnes; Writing by Jonathan Allen; Editing by Bernadette Baum)