LITTLE ROCK, Ark. — Barely a dozen hours had passed since a pair of execution warrants had expired.
The two men the State of Arkansas had wanted to put to death on Monday night remained alive. And near the State Capitol here on Tuesday afternoon, one of their lawyers was in his office, working on a court filing that he hoped would save the five men who still face execution this month.
“Honestly, my thinking was the next clients,” said Scott Braden, an assistant federal defender, recounting the hours after he spent much of Monday night at a rural prison, waiting to see whether a stay of execution would last. “We have clients coming right after that. There wasn’t a lot of time to be elated because I knew we had to be back here this morning to get ready and start working on the next clients.”
Mr. Braden, other lawyers and a small group of allies — polling suggests more than two-thirds of Arkansas residents favor the death penalty for murder — have had some success in their resistance to the state’s plan to execute eight men over less than two weeks. Three of the eight executions have been delayed, possibly for years.
Still, their achievement, amid international attention on the executions, was tempered, even as they filled a remarkable moment in a state with a complex history with capital punishment.
“In this fight, you have to take it a day — or, in this case, an hour — at a time,” Rita Sklar, who has been the executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Arkansas for 24 years, said on Monday, after Don W. Davis, one of the inmates scheduled to die that day, had won a reprieve.
“We have had some significant victories,” Ms. Sklar said, “and at this point in the day, we’d call it a win.”
In addition to Mr. Davis, courts have issued stays of execution for Bruce E. Ward, who was scheduled to die on Monday, and Jason McGehee. Both have been convicted of murder.
But death penalty opponents face formidable opposition here. Both Gov. Asa Hutchinson, a Republican, who set the state’s execution schedule, and the state’s attorney general, Leslie Rutledge, support capital punishment and have vowed to fight any last-minute legal challenges.
The pocket of resistance has often faced skepticism, condemnation and indifference.
“This is an extreme, extreme small percentage of the Arkansas population who are actually the ones out here saying anything in opposition to the death penalty,” said State Senator Jason Rapert, a Republican who supports the state’s execution timetable.
“If the message is that you can’t come to Arkansas and take advantage of and kill innocent people without facing the possibility of the death penalty, then let that be the message,” Mr. Rapert said.
At the prison on Monday night, a spokesman for Mr. Hutchinson spoke of the widower of Mr. Davis’s victim, who he said would “go to sleep again without that peace he was hoping to get tonight.” Ms. Rutledge, in a statement, called the day’s developments “heartbreaking” and said that “families have waited far too long to see justice.”
Few people here in Arkansas’s capital expect the state’s approach to capital punishment to shift. After Mr. Hutchinson announced the execution schedule, developed as a response to the looming expiration date of a lethal injection drug, the state became the site of measured rallies and prayer vigils, as well as courtroom clashes.
“There are clearly instances where there were demonstrations while I was governor that did not cause me to change my decision,” said Jim Guy Tucker, a Democrat who oversaw seven executions when he was governor. “I do think for those who are just unassailably or unwaveringly opposed to the death penalty under any circumstances, they do at least need to think about the actual acts these people committed and be aware that many of them still appear to be quite dangerous people.”
The actor Johnny Depp appeared Friday at a protest on the Capitol steps that drew hundreds of people, including Damien Echols, one of the so-called West Memphis Three, men freed from prison more than five years ago despite their convictions in a child murder case.
On the same day, a Circuit Court judge in Pulaski County issued one ruling, later vacated, to block the executions and joined a different protest against capital punishment. (The State Supreme Court has since forbidden the judge, Wendell Griffen, from considering cases about the death penalty, and it referred him to a disciplinary panel.)
“The majority of executions that take place in this country take place in the South,” said Jon B. Comstock, a former state judge who opposes the death penalty. “Have we ever reflected on why that is? I think we should reflect on it.”
Arkansas has amassed a complicated record on the death penalty, despite capital punishment having been mostly absent from recent campaigns here.
At the Cummins Unit, where Mr. Davis was to be put to death, state officials on Monday handed out manila envelopes that included a list of Arkansas executions over the last 104 years or so. The first of nearly three full pages included 66 names.
After the death penalty was reinstated in the United States in 1976, Arkansas was the first state to put two people to death on the same day. In 1994, it was the first state to carry out a triple execution in more than 30 years. The second triple execution since the death penalty’s reinstatement was also in Arkansas, in January 1997, when the state killed three men in about three hours.
State officials hope to carry out double executions on Thursday and Monday, and another death sentence on April 27.
Yet capital punishment has something of a counter-history in Arkansas, where Democrats, Republicans and independents have opposed executions and sought to slow their pace. In 1970, a Republican governor, Winthrop Rockefeller, emptied death row and commuted the sentences of the 15 prisoners who were awaiting execution.
The contemporary reluctance over the death penalty has drawn markedly less official support. Instead, many of the protesters, some of whom gathered outside the Governor’s Mansion, have been mostly older, mostly female and mostly white. Many are involved with church groups or peace activism.
“This is a conservative state, we know that,” said Furonda Brasfield, the executive director of the Arkansas Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty. “There’s really no way of knowing what kind of impact we’re having, but either way, it’s important to us to speak out.”
But the most resonating successes of the opposition have so far stemmed from the work of Mr. Braden and other lawyers, who have often subsisted on Taco Bell and Jimmy John’s. They unsuccessfully argued that the state’s compressed schedule threatened the rights of the men Arkansas would like to put to their deaths.
As Mr. Braden and another lawyer drove to Little Rock early Tuesday, Mr. Davis still alive despite having been offered what he planned as his last meal, they talked about the legal skirmishes that would continue just after sunrise.
“As long as there is going to be a death penalty, there is going to be a struggle,” Mr. Braden said on Tuesday, when an interview was interrupted for a phone call about another appeal. “There’s going to be fights, and there’s going to be fights to the end.”