Alabama postpones executions as Supreme Court reviews drug

AP News
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Posted: Mar 19, 2015 9:26 PM

MONTGOMERY, Ala. (AP) — A federal judge says Alabama has agreed to put executions on hold until the U.S. Supreme Court reviews the humaneness of a drug that the state plans to use for its next lethal injection.

The Supreme Court will hear arguments April 29 in a case brought by Oklahoma inmates regarding the sedative midazolam, a drug used in problematic executions in three states.

U.S. District Judge Keith Watkins on Wednesday delayed deadlines in an ongoing lethal-injection case until the high court issues a ruling. Watkins said lawyers with the Alabama attorney general's office agreed to the postponement and said they also would not fight any inmate requests to stay execution pending the high court ruling on the drug.

"The state has conceded that the best course of action is to stay decisions on the lethal-injection cases across the board until (the Oklahoma case) is decided," Watkins wrote.

A spokeswoman for Attorney General Luther Strange would not confirm Thursday that the state had agreed to postpone executions. However, she did say the state was not opposing inmate requests to stay three scheduled executions in the state.

Justices will review the effectiveness of midazolam, a drug that states, including Alabama, have turned to after European manufacturers became hesitant to sell the drugs that had been used previously. However, the use of midazolam has come under scrutiny after problematic executions in Arizona, Ohio and Oklahoma in which inmates gasped, writhed or took longer than expected to die.

Oklahoma death-row inmates challenged the use of midazolam, claiming the drug will fail to render them unconscious and the inmates will feel pain as subsequent drugs stop their lungs and heart. The outcome of the Oklahoma case will directly impact Alabama's plans to begin using the drug to put inmates to death.

The delay is the latest hitch in Alabama's plans to quickly resume executions after a shortage of drugs left the state unable to carry out death sentences for more than a year.

Alabama last year announced the switch to a new three-drug protocol and sought execution dates for multiple inmates. The new protocol calls for the sequential injections of midazolam hydrochloride to cause unconsciousness; rocuronium bromide, a paralytic agent that stops breathing; and potassium chloride to stop the heart.

Watkins issued the order in the case of death-row inmate Tommy Arthur, who has challenged the humaneness of the state's current and previous drug combinations.

In previous court filings, the Alabama attorney general's office argued there was no evidence that any of the inmates in other states suffered because of midazolam, saying the observed symptoms could have been associated with sleep or sleep apnea.

A fourth state, Florida, has used midazolam in multiple executions. The U.S. Supreme Court upheld a stay of execution in that state, pending the Oklahoma decision.