Appeals court overturns decision to halt executions in Mississippi

Reuters News
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Posted: Feb 10, 2016 5:04 PM

By Colleen Jenkins

(Reuters) - A U.S. appeals court on Wednesday reversed a decision that halted executions in Mississippi, finding a lower court abused its discretion when it blocked the use of certain lethal injection drugs.

Mississippi officials said the ruling validated the state's three-drug protocol, which they noted was the same as the Oklahoma cocktail upheld in a 5-4 ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court last June.

But executions in the state are unlikely to restart immediately, according to a lawyer for two death row inmates challenging the protocol.

The inmates will seek further injunctions against the protocol on other legal grounds and could request a review of the case by the full 5th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals, said their lawyer, Jim Craig.

"We haven’t made that decision yet," said Craig, co-director of the Roderick and Solange MacArthur Justice Center in New Orleans.

U.S. District Judge Henry Wingate issued a preliminary injunction last August barring Mississippi's corrections department from executing prisoners using compounded pentobarbital or midazolam.

The drugs have been used in botched executions and are not in the class of drugs specified by Mississippi law for lethal injections, convicted murderers Richard Jordan and Ricky Chase argued.

The three-judge appeals panel on Wednesday found the prisoners failed to show the drugs would impose an "atypical and significant hardship" on them. The appellate judges also rejected an argument that Mississippi's plan to use drugs not listed in state law "shocks the conscience."

"The Fifth Circuit’s ruling affirms my belief that the state is legally and properly administering the death penalty," Mississippi Governor Phil Bryant, a Republican, said in a statement.

Mississippi Attorney General Jim Hood, a Democrat, said state lawmakers should authorize alternative means for executions, as more "frivolous lawsuits" are expected and the chemicals needed to enforce the death penalty have become difficult to obtain.

He has proposed using firing squads, electrocution, hanging and the gas chamber when drugs for lethal injections were not available.

Craig said the state should instead model its capital punishment protocol after Texas, where inmates are put to death using a single, overwhelming dose of a barbiturate.

That procedure lowers the risk of lethal injections amounting to chemical torture when things go wrong in the three-drug cocktail, he said.

"They refuse to do that," he said of Mississippi officials.

Mississippi last carried out a lethal injection in 2012.

(Reporting by Colleen Jenkins in Winston-Salem, North Carolina; Editing by Tom Brown and Lisa Shumaker)