Death Penalty on Hold in Ohio after Federal Court Ruling

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A death chamber at the Southern Ohio Correctional Facility
A Nov. 2005 file photo of public information director Larry Greene in a death chamber at the Southern Ohio Correctional Facility in Lucasville, OH.
Source: “A Glance at the Five Execution Methods Allowed Today,” aol.com, May 23, 2014

On May 28, 2014, US District Judge Gregory L. Frost blocked executions from taking place in Ohio until Aug. 15, 2014, while issues surrounding the state’s new lethal injection methods are resolved. Two executions had been scheduled to occur before Aug. 15, with two more planned for later in the year. Judge Frost ordered the state and lawyers representing inmates on death row to “work together” to resolve their dispute over the use of new drug protocols adopted by Ohio in 2013.

Due to shortages of drugs customarily used to carry out the death penalty, including pentobarbital (used to anesthetize the inmate) and vecuronium bromide (used to induce paralysis), states have turned to experimental drug combinations. The new procedures have been blamed for botched executions in Ohio and Oklahoma.

During a Jan. 16, 2014 execution at the Southern Ohio Correctional Facility, witnesses said they saw inmate Dennis McGuire “choke, clench his fists and seemingly struggle against his restraints for more than 10 minutes” before being pronounced dead, according to the Los Angeles Times. McGuire, 53, was given the death penalty for raping and murdering a pregnant woman. On Apr. 29, 2014 at the Oklahoma State Penitentiary, Clayton Lockett stayed alive for 43 minutes after the execution’s commencement and at times “struggled violently, groaned and writhed, lifting his shoulders and head from the gurney,” according to the Guardian. Lockett, 38, was convicted of rape and of killing a 19 year-old woman, who was buried alive as Lockett watched.

Both the Ohio and Oklahoma executions employed the sedative midazolam. On Apr. 28, 2014, the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction announced that it would be increasing the dosage of midazolam and a second drug, hydromorphone (a painkiller) in future executions. A third syringe containing an extra dose of hydromorphone would also be on hand, as well as additional syringes “if needed.”

Jon Paul Rion, an attorney representing McGuire’s family in a lawsuit against the state, welcomed the moratorium, but said he is still concerned “that we are using therapeutic drugs for non-therapeutic purposes…” Several other lawsuits are in progress across the country arguing that the new, unproven drug protocols are in conflict with the US Constitution’s prohibition on “cruel and unusual punishments.”

The shortage of execution drugs is due to European pharmaceutical companies withholding supplies because their countries oppose the death penalty. The shortage prompted Tennessee Governor Bill Haslam to sign legislation on May 22, 2014 that enables the state to use the electric chair if appropriate drugs cannot be obtained. A Wyoming legislative committee is drafting a bill that would allow the use of a firing squad in lieu of lethal injections, while a return to the firing squad is also being evaluated by Utah lawmakers.

Sources:

Associated Press, “Ohio Judge Orders Moratorium on Executions amid Dug Srutiny,” theguardian.com, May 28, 2014

Associated Press, “Ohio Turns to Untried Execution Drug Mix Due to Shortage of Pentobarbital,” theguardian.com, Oct. 28, 2013

Mark Berman, “Inmate Dies Following Botched Oklahoma Execution, Second Execution Delayed,” washingtonpost.com, Apr. 29, 2014

Katie Fretland, “Clayton Lockett Writhed and Groaned. After 43 minutes, He Was Declared Dead,” theguardian.com, Apr. 30, 2014

Katie Fretland, “Oklahoma Execution: Clayton Lockett Writhes on Gurney in Botched Procedure,” theguardian.com, Apr. 30, 2014

Alan Johnson, “Judge Orders Temporary Moratorium on Ohio Executions,” dispatch.com, May 29, 2014

James F. McCarty, “Federal Judge Orders Moratorium on Ohio Executions until Protocol of Lethally Injected Drugs Can Be Fixed,” Cleveland.com, May 29, 2014

Antonia Molloy, “Wyoming Considers Death by Firing Squad as Tennessee Brings Back Electric Chair, Following Lethal Drugs Shortages,” independent.co.uk, May 23, 2014 

Michael Muskal, “Federal Judge Delays Executions in Ohio until August,” latimes.com, May 28, 2014

Kim Palmer, “Federal Judge Halts Executions in Ohio to Mid-August,” reuters.com, May 28, 2014

Jeremy Pelzer, “Faced with Same Execution Drug Shortage as Ohio, Tennessee Turns to Electric Chair,” cleveland.com, May 23, 2014