In his first major vote on the Supreme Court bench, Justice Neil Gorsuch voted to allow Arkansas to carry out several planned executions before the expiration date of one of its lethal-injection drugs set in.
Gorsuch sided with his four Republican counterparts -- Chief Justice John Roberts and Justices Clarence Thomas, Anthony Kennedy and Samuel Alito -- to create a majority and allow Arkansas to begin the executions, according to Bloomberg. The justices did not issue an opinion to explain their vote.
Justices Stephen Breyer, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan voted to block the executions.
"Apparently the reason the state decided to proceed with these eight executions is that the 'use by' date of the state’s execution drug is about to expire," Breyer wrote. "That factor, when considered as a determining factor separating those who live from those who die, is close to random."
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"I have previously noted the arbitrariness with which executions are carried out in this country," Breyer added, according to The New York Times. "The cases now before us reinforce that point."
Arkansas officials wasted little time to get the executions rolling and immediately put convicted murderer Ledell Lee to death.
Lee has always claimed innocence for the 1993 murder of Debra Reese, according to The Guardian.
"Arkansas’s decision to rush through the execution of Mr. Lee just because its supply of lethal drugs are expiring at the end of the month denied him the opportunity to conduct DNA testing that could have proven his innocence,″ said Nina Morrison, one of Lee’s lawyers, reports The New York Times. "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.″
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Anti-death penalty activists denounced Arkansas' decision to quickly begin its executions.
"Today is a shameful day for Arkansas, which is callously rushing the judicial process by treating human beings as though they have a sell-by date,″ Amnesty International said in a statement. "While other states have increasingly come to the conclusion that the capital punishment system is beyond repair, Arkansas is running in the opposite direction from progress. This assembly line of executions must stop, and this cruel and inhuman punishment should be ended once and for all.″
But Arkansas officials praised its decision to finally carry out the execution of a man sentenced to death 20 years ago.
"Tonight, the lawful sentence of a jury which has been upheld by the courts through decades of challenges has been carried out,″ said Arkansas Attorney General Leslie Rutledge.
Arkansas has at least three more executions planned in April.