Two court rulings dealt a blow to the US state of Arkansas in its attempt to put to death seven inmates within days.
The first, on Wednesday evening, halted the execution due the following day of Stacey Johnson so he could make fresh DNA claims to prove his innocence.
Moments later, a district judge blocked the use of one of the lethal injection drugs, halting all seven executions.
The pace of executions – originally eight in 11 days – has prompted criticism from rights’ groups.
Johnson was convicted of the murder of Carol Heath, who was beaten and had her throat slit in her flat in 1993.
Her two young children were at home at the time.
He was one of two inmates due to be put to death on Thursday, but the Arkansas Supreme Court granted his request for a stay.
Johnson will now have the chance to make his case in a lower court for further DNA testing.
The second ruling, by Pulaski County Circuit Judge Alice Gray, has wider impact because it affects all seven inmates.
She backed a lawsuit by drugs company McKesson, the supplier of the muscle relaxant vecuronium bromide.
The company argued that it had been sold to the prison system on the understanding it would be used solely for medical purposes.
Rights group Repreive lauded the county court’s ruling, saying Arkansas obtained the drug through deception.
It said this was the first time in US legal history that a private company had brought direct legal action to prevent the misuse of medicines in executions.
In an email to the BBC, the Arkansas attorney general’s office said it would appeal against the ruling.
Like many US states, Arkansas has struggled to find the drugs it needs to carry out executions. Its last was in 2005.
The frenetic filing of lawsuits and appeals in Arkansas has a profound impact on those awaiting execution, on their families and on the relatives of their victims.
The widower of one victim told me that if he had been told from the beginning that his wife’s killer would be in prison for life without parole, he might have been able to move on. But, he said, to have the prospect of the man’s execution arise and disappear over the years means reliving the hurt of the murder itself, and that every stay of execution now feels like an insult to his wife.
On Monday, one man had what he thought was his last meal before execution, only to be told minutes before his death warrant expired that the US Supreme Court ruled his execution could not happen.
On Wednesday, two more were moved to the holding cells next to Arkansas execution chamber. Their death warrants were issued for Thursday, but the process was stopped hours later by two more court rulings.
What this highlights is how hard it has become for states to kill by lethal injection, with botched executions and drug companies saying they do not want their products associated with the practice.
Those that were scheduled for execution were:
- Bruce Ward – Strangled teenage shop clerk Rebecca Doss
- Don Davis – Condemned for the execution-style killing of Jane Daniel as he burgled her home
- Stacey Johnson – Murdered Carol Heath, who was beaten, strangled and had her throat slit
- Ledell Lee – Bludgeoned Debra Reese to death with a tyre iron her husband had given her for protection
- Jack Jones – Condemned for the rape and murder of accounts clerk Mary Phillips, and the nearly fatal beating of her 11-year-old daughter
- Marcel Williams – Raped and murdered Stacey Erickson, after kidnapping her from a convenience store
- Kenneth Williams – Murdered farmer Cecil Boren during an escape from prison where Williams had been incarcerated for murdering cheerleader Dominique Hurd