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Arkansas execution flurry marks early test for new Justice Gorsuch

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Newly appointed conservative U.S. Supreme Court Justice Neil Gorsuch helped clear the way for Arkansas to hold its first execution in 12 years, a sign of the challenges facing other inmates seeking to block their executions next week.

In his first recorded vote, President Donald Trump’s pick for the court sided as expected with its renewed conservative majority. The justices voted 5-4 to reject an emergency application brought by several inmates before Arkansas executed convicted murderer Ledell Lee.

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Lee’s lethal injection for the 1993 beating death of Debra Reese was the only one carried out so far by the state this month, despite an original plan to execute eight inmates in April before its supply of one of the three drugs used expires.

The executions would be the most by any state in the shortest period since the Supreme Court reinstated capital punishment in the United States in 1976. Four of those executions have been indefinitely delayed by stays for matters including DNA testing, clemency consideration or to allow for a decision in an upcoming U.S. Supreme Court case.

Gorsuch’s vote could again be crucial next week when Arkansas plans to execute three more inmates.

On Monday, the state will try to put two inmates to death on the same day, something that has not been done in the United States in 17 years. Arkansas also plans a single execution for Thursday.

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As a conservative justice in the mold of the man he replaced, Antonin Scalia, Gorsuch is seen by most court-watchers as unlikely to undermine the death penalty.

Kent Scheidegger, a lawyer with the pro-prosecution Criminal Justice Legal Foundation, said Gorsuch is “not one who will further delay justice when it has already been badly delayed merely because the lawyers for a death row inmate bring weak claims at the last minute.”

The court has rejected stays for the eight men, including Lee. Their lawyers have argued that Arkansas’ rush to the death chamber amounted to cruel and unusual punishment, and violated the inmates’ right to counsel and their right to access the courts and counsel during the execution process.

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What a possible Gorsuch vote means for the upcoming Arkansas executions depends largely on the individual legal issues raised by the inmates and whether lower courts intervene. The Supreme Court’s default approach to emergency applications is to deny them, whether from a state or a prison inmate.

There may be further indications on how Gorsuch will approach such cases on Monday, when the court hears oral arguments in a death penalty case from Alabama. It concerns inmate James McWilliams, sentenced to death for a 1984 rape, robbery and murder.

The question is whether McWilliams has a right to an independent medical expert to assess whether he is mentally disabled and therefore ineligible for execution.

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Two of the Arkansas death row inmates the state had planned to execute this week, Don Davis and Bruce Ward, had their cases put on hold by the Arkansas Supreme Court pending the U.S. high court’s decision in the McWilliams case, due by the end of June.

There are no signs that the U.S. Supreme Court is inclined to tackle the broader question of whether the death penalty is unconstitutional under the 8th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, which prohibits cruel and unusual punishment.

The court’s conservatives, including Gorsuch, would be expected to uphold capital punishment. (For a graphic on the number and method of executions in the United States since 1976, see: http://tmsnrt.rs/20uUlkC)

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(Reporting by Lawrence Hurley in Washington and Jon Herskovitz in Austin, Texas; Editing by Colleen Jenkins and Jonathan Oatis)


Report typos and corrections to: [email protected].
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What Zelensky knew: The devastating and darkly ironic impact of Trump’s attempt to bribe Ukraine

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In their effort to exculpate President Donald Trump in the impeachment inquiry, Republicans put Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky’s denial that he ever felt pressure from the White House to open up investigations into Democrats at the center of their argument. A new GOP memo says that both leaders have acknowledged “there was no pressure” on the famous July 25 call that sparked the inquiry and thus argues that the allegations made by Democrats that Trump abused his power don’t hold.

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Greta Thunberg says ‘people must finally wake up’ to the fact Trump is ‘so extreme’ on climate change

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Swedish teen activist Greta Thunberg said Tuesday that US President Donald Trump's climate change denialism was "so extreme" that it had helped galvanize the movement to halt long term planetary warming.

She spoke in an interview with AFP on the eve of her departure from North America where she has spent almost three months.

"He's so extreme and he says so extreme things, so I think people wake up by that in a way," the 16-year-old said from on board a sailboat preparing to depart from the East Coast town of Hampton, Virginia for Europe early Wednesday.

"I thought when he got elected, now people will finally, now people must finally wake up," she continued.

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Trump praises ‘amazing warrior’ Sean Hannity for saying impeachment hearings are a ‘phony showtrial’

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President Donald Trump thanked Fox News personality Sean Hannity for his over-the-top defense the evening before impeachment hearings begin.

According to Trump's quoting, Hannity said Rep. Adam Schiff (D-CA) was a, "corrupt, compromised, coward and congenital liar."

Hannity called the Schiff's Intelligence Committee hearings a "phony showtrial" -- despite the reality that an impeachment trial would occur in the GOP-controlled Senate.

Still, Hannity lashed out at the inquiry as "another fraudulent hoax conspiracy theory" and "witch hunt."

Trump thanked, "Sean the amazing warrior!"

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