Arkansas death row inmate asks court for new DNA testing

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FILE This undated file handout photo provided by the Arkansas Department of Correction shows Stacey Johnson. Johnson, an Arkansas death row inmate who was spared from execution two years ago is asking the state Supreme Court to allow new DNA testing of evidence that his attorneys say could exonerate him. (Arkansas Department of Correction via AP, File)

LITTLE ROCK, Ark. (AP) — An Arkansas death row inmate who was spared from execution two years ago asked the state Supreme Court on Thursday to allow new DNA testing of evidence that his attorneys say could exonerate him.

Attorneys for convicted murderer Stacey Johnson and for the state appeared before the court over the testing requested of evidence from the 1993 killing of Carol Heath. Johnson is appealing a lower court’s ruling denying the request for additional testing.

Johnson’s attorneys say there were major limitations in DNA testing when Johnson was convicted of Heath’s murder. The items they’re seeking to test include the rape kit and a towel found at the scene.

“All that Mr. Johnson is asking is that before the state go forward with the irreversible punishment of execution, that he be allowed to subject this evidence to precisely the kind of testing that would be used if this murder were committed today,” Olga Akselrod, a staff attorney with the Innocence Project, told justices.

The state, however, argued that the DNA evidence can’t outweigh other evidence that proves Johnson’s guilt and called the request an attempt to continue delaying his execution.

“What (Heath’s family) is entitled to is closure, and they haven’t gotten that closure,” Solicitor General Nicholas Bronni told the court.

Arkansas doesn’t have any executions scheduled. The last of the state’s lethal injection drugs expired in January and the state has not replaced them.

Johnson was one of eight inmates Arkansas sought to execute in April 2017 before the state’s supply of a lethal injection drug expired. Johnson and three other inmates were spared by the courts. Johnson’s execution was stayed so a lower court could hear arguments on the request for additional evidence. The Supreme Court’s makeup hasn’t changed since it halted Johnson’s execution in a 4-3 ruling.

Bronni repeatedly faced heated questioning from Justice Jo Hart, who asked about the state’s resistance to the additional testing.

“What is it you’re afraid of finding out with the testing?” she said.

Johnson’s claims faced skepticism from Justice Shawn Womack, who was among the three justices who opposed the inmate’s stay three years ago. Womack questioned how capital cases could be resolved if the court was asked repeatedly to revisit them.

“How do we ever get to finality?” he said.

Johnson’s case is being considered as the state awaits a ruling in a federal lawsuit challenging its use of the sedative midazolam in executions. A federal judge hasn’t ruled since holding a trial in the case in May.

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