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US judge blocks lethal injection drug combo as unlawful

An anti-death penalty activist demonstrates in front of the US Supreme Court in Washington, DC (AFP Photo/Mandel Ngan)

Chicago (AFP) - Citing mounting evidence from recent US executions, a federal judge blocked Thursday the use of lethal injections to put to death three Ohio inmates, saying a proposed drug cocktail was unconstitutional.

Federal Magistrate Judge Michael Merz of Ohio focused heavily on the use of one of the drugs, midazolam, citing evidence from multiple other state executions that the drug insufficiently sedated inmates, likely leading to suffering during their executions.

Lawyers for the three Ohio inmates claimed such suffering violated the US Constitution's Eighth Amendment prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment. Judge Merz sided with that argument, saying the proposed three-drug lethal injection cocktail "creates a substantial risk of serious harms."

Raymond Tibbetts, Ronald Phillips and Gary Otte were scheduled to be executed by Ohio between February and April, but Merz granted a preliminary injunction barring the state from using a combination of midazolam, to be followed by a paralytic agent and potassium chloride, which stops the heart.

In a 119-page ruling, the judge cited recent executions in Ohio, Alabama, Arizona and elsewhere, where inmates receiving midazolam as the first drug in a lethal injection cocktail appeared to remain conscious for a substantial period of time.

Ohio halted executions after the 2014 lethal injection of Dennis McGuire using midazolam, during which the inmate appeared to snort and gasp. Judge Merz pointed to witness testimony from that execution, including from Columbus Dispatch reporter Alan Johnson, who has witnessed 20 executions in total.

"McGuire began coughing, gasping, choking in a way that I had not seen before at any execution... Frankly, that went on for 12 to 13 minutes," the judge quoted Johnson as saying.

The state countered that the revised dosage of midazolam would be 50 times stronger. But the judge pointed to expert testimony offered by the plaintiffs that midazolam was not an adequate substitute for general anesthesia drugs.

Its use in executions is "contrary to sound medical or scientific reasoning," testified Craig Stevens, professor of pharmacology at Oklahoma State University, according to the court.

States have struggled to find adequate supplies of lethal injection drugs, as pharmaceutical companies have restricted the use of their drugs for executions.

Court challenges have ensued as states have tried new drug cocktails.

"This ruling brings Ohio in line with recent developments from other states that have recognized that midazolam is not an appropriate drug for use in executions," said Megan McCracken of the Death Penalty Clinic at the University of California, Berkeley.

"The risks of extraordinary pain and suffering with this protocol are unconstitutional, and this ruling correctly recognizes the problems with midazolam."