By Lawrence Hurley
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The U.S. Supreme Court on Wednesday agreed to temporarily block the execution of three Oklahoma inmates who are challenging the state’s lethal injection procedure.
The court’s action means that convicted killers Richard Glossip, John Grant and Benjamin Cole will not be put to death using the sedative they object to until after the Supreme Court decides whether the procedure violates the U.S. Constitution’s ban on cruel and unusual punishment.
The court's brief order leaves open the possibility that the state could try to proceed with the executions using a different combination of drugs.
Last week, the high court agreed to hear the case, which is set to be decided by the end of June, but it did not block the inmates' death sentences at that time.
The three-drug process used by Oklahoma prison officials has been under scrutiny since the April 2014 botched execution of convicted murderer Clayton Lockett. He could be seen twisting on the gurney after death chamber staff failed to place the IV properly.
The inmates challenging the state's procedures argue the sedative used by Oklahoma, midazolam, cannot achieve the level of unconsciousness required for surgery, making it unsuitable for executions.
Glossip, who arranged for his employer to be beaten to death, was scheduled to be executed on Thursday. Grant, who stabbed a correctional worker to death, was due to be executed on Feb. 19. Cole, convicted of killing his 9-month-old daughter, was scheduled for execution on March 5.
On Jan. 15, the high court on a 5-4 vote declined to halt Oklahoma's execution of Charles Warner, convicted of raping and murdering an 11-month-old baby. Warner had raised the same legal question as the other inmates.
The court's apparently contradictory acts indicate divisions between its five conservative and four liberal justices. Although five votes are needed to grant a stay application, only four are required for the court to take up a case.
(Reporting by Lawrence Hurley; Editing by Will Dunham)