COLUMBUS, Ohio – A federal judge has extended a months-long moratorium on executions in Ohio into next year as questions mount about the effectiveness of a new, two-drug combination being used to carry out the death penalty.
The debate over the death penalty has been intensified in America and lethal injection has been under increased scrutiny after executions went awry in Ohio, Oklahoma and Arizona.
The Ohio ruling by federal judge Gregory Frost will delay executions scheduled for September, October and November and highlights the ongoing problem faced by states in obtaining drugs to put inmates to death.
The last moratorium was scheduled to expire this week.
The one-page order by Frost issued Friday extends it through Jan. 15. It affects Ohio’s latest death penalty policy change, which was announced in late April and increases the amount of the sedative and painkiller Ohio uses.
Ohio’s first choice for a drug is compounded pentobarbital, a specialty version of the drug it used previously with few problems. But it has been unable to obtain supplies of compounded pentobarbital and so switched to its backup method of the sedative midazolam and the painkiller hydromorphone.
Missouri and Texas both have supplies of compounded pentobarbital, though the states won’t reveal their sources, and have used them to carry out several executions successfully in recent months. The two states are scheduled to carry out the country’s next executions, both on Sept. 10.
Allen Bohnert, the lead defence attorney challenging the use of the two-drug method, declined to comment. A message was left with the state prisons agency.
Back in January, Ohio inmate Dennis McGuire snorted and gasped for 26 minutes before dying. A few months later, Clayton Lockett died of an apparent heart attack 43 minutes after his April execution began in Oklahoma, where officials have pointed to improper insertion of the needle delivering the drugs.
When Joseph Rudolph Wood was put to death last month in Arizona, he gasped more than 600 times while he lay on the table and took nearly two hours to die.
Most lethal injections kill in a fraction of that time, often within 10 or 15 minutes. Governors in Ohio, Oklahoma and Arizona have ordered investigations.
The three states all use midazolam, a drug that is more commonly given to help patients relax before surgery. In executions, it is part of a two- or three-drug lethal injection.
For decades, states used the same three-drug formula for lethal injections: a sedative that rendered the inmate unconscious, usually sodium thiopental, followed by a paralytic agent, usually pancuronium bromide, and finally the drug that stopped the heart, potassium chloride.
But in recent years, major drugmakers, many of them in Europe, stopped selling pharmaceuticals for use in executions, citing ethical concerns. By 2011, with sodium thiopental no longer available, Ohio became the first state to use pentobarbital in a single-drug execution.
Soon, the Danish maker of pentobarbital, Lundbeck Inc., initiated efforts to keep it out of the hands of corrections departments. That led Ohio and some other states that initially used the drug to abandon it.
The next execution scheduled in Ohio was to have occurred Sept. 18, when Ronald Phillips was set to die for the 1993 rape and death of his girlfriend’s 3-year-old daughter in Akron.
The state prisons agency said it “remains committed to carrying out executions in a humane and lawful manner,” according to spokeswoman JoEllen Smith.