At 11th hour, U.S. Supreme Court stops Arkansas bid to execute inmate Don Davis

Last Updated Apr 18, 2017 1:41 AM EDT

VARNER, Ark. -- The U.S. Supreme Court spared the life of an Arkansas inmate minutes before his death warrant was set to expire Monday, scuttling the state’s efforts to resume capital punishment after nearly 12 years with four double executions before its supply of a lethal injection drug expires.

The high court’s decision to maintain the stay for Don Davis capped a chaotic day of legal wrangling in state and federal courts that cleared the primary obstacles Arkansas faced to carrying out its first executions since 2005.

The court’s order offered no explanation, but none of the justices voted in favor of lifting the stay. Monday marked the first day the court was in session with new Justice Neil Gorsuch on the bench.

Gov. Asa Hutchinson, who had set the multiple executions, said the state would continue to push to carry out the other executions. Two inmates are set to be put to death Thursday.

“While this has been an exhausting day for all involved, tomorrow we will continue to fight back on last minute appeals and efforts to block justice for the victims’ families,” Hutchinson said in a statement.

Attorney General Leslie Rutledge noted that there are five upcoming executions “with nothing preventing them from occurring.”

The legal fighting had centered on a series of planned lethal injections that, if carried out, would mark the most inmates put to death by a state in such a short period since the U.S. Supreme Court reinstated the death penalty in 1976. The state scheduled the executions to happen before its supply of midazolam, a lethal injection drug, expires at the end of April.

The state was rushing to win approval to execute Davis before his death warrant expired at midnight. Davis and Bruce Ward were set to be executed Monday night and had been granted stays by the state Supreme Court. The state decided not to challenge the stay for Ward.

Arkansas Department of Correction employees continued their preparations to execute Davis even though the execution’s status was up in the air, reports CBS Little Rock affiliate KTVH-TV. According to the DOC, Davis had what was supposed to be his last meal: fried chicken, mashed potatoes, Great Northern beans, fruit punch, and strawberry cake.

Witnesses were being moved toward the execution chamber when the Supreme Court ruled.

The U.S. Supreme Court ruling came hours after the state had cleared two of the main obstacles to resuming executions. The 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals reversed a federal judge’s ruling blocking the executions over the use of midazolam, a sedative used in flawed executions in other states. The state Supreme Court also lifted a lower court ruling preventing the state from using another lethal injection drug that a supplier said was sold to be used for medical purposes, not executions.

Davis was sentenced to die for the 1990 death of Jane Daniel in Rogers, who was killed in her home when Davis broke in and shot her with a .44-caliber revolver he found there. Davis came within six hours of execution in 2010 before he was spared by the state Supreme Court.

“It is heartbreaking that the family of Jane Daniel has once again seen justice delayed,” Rutledge said in a statement. “Davis was convicted of his crimes in 1992, and my office took every action it could today to see that justice was carried out.”