Lethal Injection

Arkansas, Nevada Obtain New Supplies of Drugs, Plan to Carry Out Two Questionable Executions

The states of Arkansas and Nevada have announced that they have obtained new supplies of execution drugs that will permit them to carry out two executions in what critics have called questionable circumstances. On August 4, Arkansas obtained a supply of midazolam—the controversial drug used in botched executions in at least four states—paying $250 in cash to an undisclosed supplier for 40 vials of the drug. Then, on August 17, Attorney General Leslie Rutledge asked Governor Asa Hutchinson to set an execution date for Jack Greene (pictured), described by his lawyers as “a severely mentally ill man [with] well-documented brain damage.” Also on August 17, Nevada—which does not currently have an execution protocol in place—announced that it had obtained drugs to execute Scott Dozier, using a three-drug formula that no state has ever tried before. Dozier—who has waived his appeal rights and volunteered to be executed—is scheduled to die on November 14. In a press statement, Greene’s lawyer, John C. Williams, said “[c]apital punishment should not be used on vulnerable people like the severely mentally ill.” Greene, he said, is mentally incompetent and suffers from delusions that “his spinal cord has been removed and his central nervous system has been destroyed.” Responding to this delusion, Williams said, Greene “constantly twist[s] his body and stuff[s] his ear and nose with toilet paper to cope with the pain,” often causing himself to bleed. A spokesperson for Hutchinson—who authorized Arkansas’s unprecedented attempt to execute eight prisoners over an eleven-day span in April—has indicated that the governor will set an execution date for Greene. To execute Dozier, Nevada has indicated that it will use an untried combination of diazepam (Valium), fentanyl (an opiod), and cisatracurium (a paralytic). The state has not yet announced how the drugs will be administered. All but one of the prisoners executed in Nevada since 1977 were found to have waived their appeals; Dozier would be the state's 12th death-row prisoner to volunteer to be executed. Nevada recently spent nearly $900,000 on building a new execution chamber.  

Ohio Executes Ronald Phillips, Resumes Executions After 3½-Year Pause

After a hiatus of 3½ years, Ohio resumed executions on July 26, putting Ronald Phillips (pictured, photo credit: Forgiveness Foundation) to death with a three-drug combination of the sedative midazolam, the paralytic drug rocuronium bromide, and the heart-stopping drug potassium chloride. Phillips was pronounced dead at 10:43 a.m. It was the state's first execution since the botched execution of Dennis McGuire on January 16, 2014, and the 15th in the U.S. in 2017. Phillips' execution is the first of four executions that Ohio has scheduled for this year and of 27 scheduled through 2020. Ohio's resumptions of executions is expected to contribute to a small increase in executions in the U.S. this year, although the annual total is likely to remain among the lowest in the last quarter century. Phillips was executed despite the efforts of a diverse range of groups, including former attorney generals, justice reform advocates, exonerees, faith leaders, and editorial writiers, urging Governor John Kasich not to resume executions before Ohio addressed serious systemic flaws in its death penalty process that had been identified by a statewide death penalty task force. Phillips had sought a stay of execution until an ongoing challenge to Ohio's lethal-injection process is finally resolved, and his application drew support from fifteen pharmacology professors who filed a brief calling midazolam "unsuitable" and its as an execution drug "profoundly troubling." Justices Sotomayor and Ginsburg dissented from the denial of the stay, saying the court's action constituted a “failure to step in when significant issues of life and death are present.” Ohio officials said the execution proceeded without incident. Allen L. Bohnert, one of the lawyers who represents prisoners in the ongoing lethal-injection litigation, released a statement saying: "While Ohio will try to characterize today’s execution as 'problem-free,' do not be fooled." By choosing to inject the paralytic drug "extremely quickly," he said, Ohio "hid[ ] the real facts behind an artificial chemical curtain, . . . masking the problems with midazolam seen in multiple other executions." He urged the state to "heed the warnings of numerous pharmacists, pharmacologists, and anesthesiologists . . . and immediately halt any further use of midazolam and the paralytic drug in lethal injection executions." Ohio has executed 53 prisoners since the turn of the century—the most of any northern state and more than the combined total of every other northern state east of the Mississippi. Ohio ranked with Texas and Oklahoma as the only states to have executed at least one prisoner each year from 2001 to 2014.

Independent Pathologist Says Autopsy Reveals Problems With Virginia's Execution of Ricky Gray

Something went wrong during the execution of Ricky Gray (pictured), who was put to death in Virginia on January 18, 2017, according to an independent expert who reviewed the official autopsy report of Gray's death. Dr. Mark Edgar, associate director of bone and soft tissue pathology at the Emory University School of Medicine, reviewed the official autopsy report, which Gray's family obtained from the Virginia medical examiner's office. Dr. Edgar says Gray suffered an acute pulmonary edema during the execution, with liquid in his upper airways and blood entering his lungs while he was still breathing. “The anatomic changes described in Ricky Gray’s lungs are more often seen in the aftermath of a sarin gas attack than in a routine hospital autopsy," Edgar said. "This is of concern especially given the fact that midazolam is not an anesthetic, but a sedative often used for medical procedures requiring conscious sedation and the issue that the compounded drugs used in this case may have lacked potency or been impure.” Virginia's lethal-injection protocol consists of three drugs: midazolam, a sedative intended to render the prisoner unconscious, followed by a paralytic intended to stop the prisoner's breathing, followed by potassium chloride, which stops the prisoner's heart. The use of midazolam in executions is controversial because it is not an anesthetic, it is used in medical settings only for lower levels of sedation rather than to produce full unconsciousness, and its use has been linked to numerous problematic executions. In Virginia, both the midazolam and the potassium chloride are produced by compounding pharmacies whose identities are secret under state law. “This way of dying is intolerable. You can’t control your breathing—it is terrible,” Edgar said. “When it is this severe, you can experience panic and terror and, if the individual was in any way aware of what was happening to them, it would be unbearable.” After Edgar's report was released on July 6, lawyers for William Morva—whose execution was scheduled in Virginia that night—asked Governor Terry McAuliffe for a temporary reprieve. “We believed a reprieve was appropriate to allow time for further investigation to ensure that the Commonwealth carries out future executions—including Mr. Morva’s—in a manner that avoids unnecessary pain and suffering,” explained Rob Lee, one of Morva's attorneys. McAuliffe denied the reprieve, and witnesses reported that Morva made a loud noise after the midazolam was administered and had several sharp contractions of his abdomen. The same three-drug protocol used in Virginia has been proposed for use in Ohio, but is being challenged in court by death-row prisoners. 

Execution Drugs Three States Attempted to Illegally Import Have Now Expired

Three thousand vials of the anesthetic sodium thiopental that three states attempted to illegally import into the United States for use in executions have now expired, according to an investigative report by BuzzFeed News. Arizona, Nebraska, and Texas each purchased 1000 vials of the drug in 2015 from a questionable supplier in India called Harris Pharma, despite warnings from the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) that importation of the drug would violate federal law. Citing documents obtained from the FDA through a public records request, BuzzFeed reports that the sodium thiopental in the shipments expired in May 2017. The FDA confiscated the sodium thiopental Arizona and Texas attempted to bring into the country after U.S. Customs and Border Protection agents seized the shipments at airports in Phoenix and Houston. Federal officials justified their action saying that a 2012 court order "requires the FDA to refuse admission to the US any shipment of foreign manufactured sodium thiopental being offered for importation that appears to be an unapproved new drug or a misbranded drug." FedEx halted Nebraska's shipment in India because of "improper or missing paperwork." Harris Pharma, the company that sold the drugs, claimed to have manufactured the sodium thiopental itself, but the facilities it registered with the FDA and the Drug Enforcement Administration were not equipped to produce pharmaceuticals. Harris had, in fact, purchased the drug from another Indian manufacturer and resold it to the three states at a substantially inflated price. The sole U.S. manufacturer of sodium thiopental halted production in 2011 over ethical concerns about the use of the product in executions. In January 2017, Texas sued the FDA in federal court over the agancy's continued detention of the drugs without having issued a formal decision on the disposition of the drugs. The FDA issued a final order in April 2017 refusing to release the drugs to Arizona and Texas, and Texas has challenged that ruling. A spokesperson for the Texas Department of Criminal Justice said the state's lawsuit against the FDA would continue, despite the expiration of the drugs. Last year, a Texas official whose name was redacted from official documents said in an affidavit that the state, "intends to continue importing thiopental sodium from the same foreign source, and with the same labeling, as the entry that FDA is currently detaining."

Federal Appeals Court Upholds Ohio Lethal-Injection Process, Vacates Execution Stays

A divided U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit on June 28 reversed the decision of a federal district court that had stayed executions in Ohio. In an 8-6 en banc decision, the court voted to allow Ohio to proceed with executions using a proposed combination of the controversial sedative midazolam, the paralytic drug pancuronium bromide, and the heart-stopping drug potassium chloride. Midazolam has been implicated in botched executions in Alabama, Arizona, Ohio, and Oklahoma and flawed executions in Arkansas. After a five-day evidentiary hearing in early January 2017, the District Court issued a preliminary injunction that stayed the executions of Ohio death-row prisoners Ronald Phillips, Raymond Tibbetts, and Gary Otte. At that time, it found "that administration of a paralytic drug and potassium chloride will cause a person severe pain" that would not be amerliorated by using midazolam, that the protocol itself created a "substantial" and "objectively intolerable" risk of serious harm, and that a compounded version of the drug pentobarbital was available as an alternative method of execution. The State appealed that decision to the Sixth Circuit, and in April, a three-judge panel affirmed the lower court's decision. The State then appealed that decision to the full court (a procedure called en banc review). The majority agreed that the prisoners "have shown some risk that Ohio’s execution protocol may cause some degree of pain," but said "some risk of pain 'is inherent in any method of execution—no matter how humane'” and "the Constitution does not guarantee ‘a pain-free execution.’” Allen Bohnert, one of the lawyers for the prisoners, said in a statement: "Multiple executions have demonstrated that midazolam is not a suitable drug for lethal injection, and especially when used with the two excruciatingly painful drugs Ohio abandoned in 2009. ... Ohio should not take the risk of continued botched executions by going back to using these dangerous, unsuitable drugs." He said the prisoners will seek review of the decision in the U.S. Supreme Court because "[n]o one in Ohio wants to see another botched execution." The decision permits Ohio to move forward with 30 executions that are scheduled between this month and 2021, while the District Court conducts a full trial on the lethal-injection challenge brought by death-row prisoners. Ohio has scheduled the execution of Ronald Phillips for July 26.

Arizona Makes Key Concessions, Reaches Deal With Prisoners to Settle Lethal-Injection Lawsuit

Death-row prisoners and the state of Arizona have reached a tentative settlement to address the state's lethal-injection protocol. Under the settlement, which could have an impact on lethal-injection litigation across the country, Arizona has dropped a three-drug formula from its protocol in favor of using a high dose of single barbiturate, and will honor a prior commitment not to use the sedative midazolam. The state also agreed not to use any paralytic drug in the execution process—which defense lawyers argued had served only to mask the prisoners' reaction to the painful third drug used to stop his heart. The proposed agreement provides greater transparency and accountability throughout the execution process, permitting witnesses to see corrections personnel escort the prisoner into the execution chamber, strap him to the gurney, and insert the intravenous line. The witnesses also will be able to view via closed-circuit monitors the drugs being inserted into the IV lines. In the past, Arizona had been sharply criticized for repeatedly changing execution procedures, and the state has agreed that the director of the Department of Corrections would no longer be able to make last-minute changes to the execution process. Arizona also agreed to test the drugs before they are used in an execution, and committed to not use expired drugs. Previously, the state had agreed it would not use the sedative midazolam—which was used in the botched execution of Joseph Wood in 2014—but had hedged on that commitment in a revised protocol published in 2015. At a hearing before U.S. District Judge Neil Wake, Assistant Attorney General Jeff Sparks said the agreement wouldn't immediately restart executions. "The state doesn't have drugs right now and has no intention of seeking a warrant," Sparks said. Dale Baich, a lawyer for the death-row prisoners, praised the settlement. "Arizona has had this history of problematic executions, but today the state is taking steps to decrease the risk that prisoners will be tortured to death," he said. Prisoners in Ohio are raising similar challenges as the state has repeatedly changed its proposed protocol, promising in 2009 that it would never again use a three-drug formula, then proposing exactly such a protocol in 2016. Arizona's lethal-injection procedure is still the subject of another lawsuit brought by a group of media organizations that are seeking transparency on the source of execution drugs and the qualifications of executioners.

Federal Court Grants Lethal-Injection Stay to Alabama Prisoner With Claims of Attorney Abandonment, Flawed Forensics

Robert Melson (pictured), an Alabama death-row prisoner whose clemency petition alleges that abandonment by his post-conviction lawyers prevented him from adequately challenging the flawed forensic evidence in his case, received a stay of execution from the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit on a challenge to Alabama's lethal-injection protocol. Melson was convicted of three murders at a Popeye's restaurant in 1994. A survivor of the crime recognized one of two assailants as Cuhuatemoc “Tempo” Peraita, an acquaintance of Melson's, and described the second assailant only as a black man. More than an hour after the crime occurred, police pulled over Peraita's car, and arrested him along with the black male passenger, Robert Melson. At the suggestion of police, Peraita—a 17-year-old with intellectual impairments—confessed to having been present during the crime, but claimed Melson had shot the victims. (Peraita has since recanted his accusation.) Melson has consistently maintained his innocence. During the interrogation, police took Melson's shoes from him. According to Melson's clemency petition, "Five days later, a police evidence technician belatedly discovered, photographed, and cast footprints in a rainy drainage ditch behind Popeye’s restaurant, which they later said matched Mr. Melson’s shoes." Peraita didn't testify at Melson's trial, and the witness who had identified Peraita did not identify Melson in a photo lineup. No other forensic evidence—such as fingerprints or DNA—linked Melson to the crime. As a result, Melson's conviction relied heavily on the shoeprint evidence, a type of evidence that the landmark 2009 report on forensic science by the National Academies of Science, Strengthening Forensic Science in the United States: A Path Forward, found to be unreliable, unscientific, and susceptible to bias. In addition to the problems inherent with shoeprint evidence, nearly two inches of rain had fallen between the time of the crime and the time police reported discovering the shoeprint. Melson should have been able to challenge the shoeprint evidence during his post-conviction appeal, but was represented by an inexperienced volunteer attorney who was not licensed in Alabama and a local attorney who had a history of malpractice. The lawyers did not properly file Melson's state post-conviction petition, and then, on appeal, they filed the documents in the wrong court, causing his appeal to be dismissed. The error was compounded because the attorneys failed to inform Melson of the dismissal. Melson's time to file a petition for habeas corpus in federal court ran out before he learned his state case had been dismissed. Cases like Melson's raise concerns about Alabama's recently passed "Fair Justice Act," which would potentially exacerbate errors like those made by his attorneys, since state deadlines would be shorter and stricter and all state death penalty appeals would run concurrently. In a separate case, Melson and several other Alabama death-row prisoners challenged Alabama's use of midazolam in executions, highlighting problems that have occurred when the drug was used in past executions. The 11th Circuit stayed Melson's June 8 execution to allow time for it to consider that challenge. [UPDATE: The U.S. Supreme Court vacated the stay of execution, and Melson was executed as scheduled.]

Indiana Appeals Court Voids State's Lethal-Injection Protocol

The Indiana Court of Appeals has voided the state's lethal-injection protocol. In a ruling on June 1, 2017, the state intermediate appeals court held that the Indiana Department of Corrections (DOC) had failed to comply with state rulemaking procedures when it adopted a never-before-used execution protocol without public notice or comment. In 2014, the DOC announced that it had adopted a new execution protocol "informally as an internal DOC policy." The protocol called for a three-drug lethal-injection combination of the barbiturate methohexital (Brevital), followed by pancuronium bromide, a paralytic, followed by potassium chloride to stop the prisoner's heart. No state has ever carried out an execution using that drug combination. Death-row prisoner Roy Lee Ward challenged the protocol, saying that DOC's use of informal internal procedures to put the protocol in place violated the Indiana Administrative Rules and Procedure Act (ARPA) and his right to due process. A lower court dismissed the lawsuit. On appeal, the DOC argued that it was exempt from the ARPA, but the appeals court flatly rejected that argument. It wrote: "If the legislature intended to exempt the DOC from the purview of ARPA altogether, or even to exempt the DOC’s execution protocols, it could have easily done so, but it has not." The court held, "[a]s a matter of law, DOC must comply with ARPA when changing its execution protocol, and its failure to do so in this case means that the changed protocol is void and without effect." David Frank, who represented Ward in the appeal, praised the ruling, saying "[t]he public has a right to know what unelected bureaucrats at state agencies are doing." The decision does not mean Indiana cannot carry out executions, he said, but "bring[s] what [Indiana is] doing out of the shadows" and makes state officials "accountable to the public." Indiana has not carried out an execution since 2009.

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