COLUMBUS, Ohio (AP) — A freeze on capital punishment in Ohio will continue into 2015 after a federal judge extended a months-long moratorium on executions as questions mount about the effectiveness of a new, two-drug combination being used to carry out the death penalty.
The ruling by federal judge Gregory Frost delays executions scheduled for September, October, November and January and highlights the ongoing problem faced by states in obtaining drugs to put inmates to death. It may also give Ohio more time to find sources for its preferred method — a single dose of compounded pentobarbital — which has been used without incident several times in Missouri and Texas.
The last Ohio moratorium was scheduled to expire this week, but the one-page order that Frost issued Friday extends it through Jan. 15. At issue is the state's latest death penalty policy change, which was announced in late April and increases the amount of the sedative and painkiller Ohio uses.
Last January, unable to obtain supplies of compounded pentobarbital, Ohio switched to its backup method of the sedative midazolam and the painkiller hydromorphone. Condemned killer Dennis McGuire repeatedly gasped during the record 26 minutes it took him to die on Jan. 16, an outcome partly predicted by defense attorneys beforehand.
On April 29 in Oklahoma, an inmate died of an apparent heart attack 43 minutes after his execution began with a three-drug method that starts with midazolam. Officials pointed to improper insertion of the needle delivering the drugs.
On July 23, an inmate took nearly two hours to die in Arizona, which also uses midazolam and 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. In Missouri, Earl Ringo is set to die for a July 4, 1998, double slaying at a Ruby Tuesday restaurant in Columbia, where he was a former employee. In Texas, Willie Trottie is scheduled to die from a single dose of compounded pentobarbital for shooting his former girlfriend and her brother in Houston in 1993.
Given the evidence from Ohio and Arizona about problems with the two-drug method, the extension may be the judge's way of pushing Ohio to switch to its first choice, said Doug Berman, an Ohio State University law professor and death penalty expert.
"It may be that either the state itself is saying, 'With more time we think we can get there,' or at the very least Judge Frost wanting to create an environment to give the state additional time to facilitate that approach to execution," Berman said Monday.
The state prisons agency declined to comment on the order except to say it would be followed. The agency "remains committed to carrying out executions in a humane and lawful manner," according to spokeswoman JoEllen Smith.
Allen Bohnert, the lead defense attorney challenging the use of the two-drug method, declined to comment.
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.
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.
Andrew Welsh-Huggins can be reached on Twitter at https://twitter.com/awhcolumbus.