Pulaski County Circuit Judge Wendell Griffen granted a temporary restraining order yesterday to McKesson, a medical supply company that says it sold vecuronium bromide to the state for medical purposes and not for executions.
But Republican Arkansas Governor Asa Hutchinson had wanted to proceed swiftly with the executions as one of the chemicals in the difficult-to-obtain lethal injection, the sedative midazolam, expires at the end of April.
The retail pharmaceutical distributor McKesson said in a statement Thursday night that it complained to the state about the plans to lethally inject the drug, and that Arkansas said it would return the drug.
In a letter seen by The New York Times, a lawyer for drug company McKesson said the state "never disclosed its intended objective to us for these products".
A federal judge is weighing whether to block the state's plan to put the men to death before the end of the month. Ward's attorneys had asked for the stay after a Jefferson County judge said she didn't have the authority to halt Ward's execution.
The state had scheduled two executions for April 17.
Protesters at the state Capitol building in Little Rock on Friday.
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Among them was film star Johnny Depp, accompanied by former death-row inmate Damien Echols. Depp was among several celebrities who lobbied for the release of Echols and the two other men convicted in the "West Memphis Three" case. Despite his voice cracking with emotion a couple times, he emphasized two things: that his fellow inmates on death row saved his life and that it was up to the voters of Arkansas to decide the fate of the still condemned. The prisoner died 43 minutes after the first execution drugs were administered. "Attorney General Rutledge intends to file an emergency request with the Arkansas Supreme Court to vacate the order as soon as possible".
"We are grateful that the Arkansas Supreme Court has issued a stay of execution for Bruce Ward so that they may consider the serious questions presented about his sanity", Scott Braden, an assistant federal public defender representing Ward, said in a statement.
The Arkansas attorney general's office said the state would appeal the judge's ruling, which threatened to derail a plan that once called for eight executions over the course of 10 days.
A report by a Harvard Law School initiative suggests five of the men Arkansas plans to execute, including Ward, are not mentally fit for the death penalty. And one of the major reasons Fresenius and West-Ward are concerned is they're unsure exactly how the state got its hands on what little they do have of those drugs (the firms are suspected to be the source of the supply).
"ADC (the Arkansas Department of Correction) personnel used an existing medical license, which is to be used only to order products with legitimate medical uses, and an irregular ordering process to obtain the vecuronium via phone order with a McKesson salesperson", the brief said.
The Associated Press a year ago used redacted drug labels to identify Hospira, which was purchased by Pfizer, as the likely manufacturer of vecuronium bromide. The drugmaker says McKesson sold the drug to Arkansas without its knowledge.