Judge mulls whether to let Arizona's executions resume

AP News
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Posted: Apr 07, 2016 7:43 PM

PHOENIX (AP) — A federal judge heard arguments Thursday on an effort by Arizona to dismiss a lawsuit over how it carries out the death penalty in a decision that could let the state resume executions.

Executions in Arizona are on hold until the lawsuit is resolved, but if the case is dismissed, it would clear the way for the state to continue using the death penalty.

But even then, the state would face what's believed to be a fast-approaching expiration date on its supply of a key lethal-injection drug, leaving Arizona with a short timeframe for carrying out executions.

Lawyers for the state told U.S. District Judge Neil Wake earlier this year that Arizona's supply of the sedative midazolam will expire on May 31 and that it didn't have a means to get more. The Arizona Department of Corrections and Attorney General's Office had no immediate comment Thursday on whether the state has since found a new supply.

The lawsuit by seven death-row inmates and the First Amendment Coalition of Arizona seeks more transparency in the state's execution process, such as information about the suppliers of lethal-injection drugs, their expiration dates and the state's efforts to find such drugs. It protests the use of a paralytic drug that's part of the state's three-drug lethal-injection protocol, claiming it masks whether midazolam given to a condemned inmate is effective.

Lawyers pushing the lawsuit say there's no valid reason for the government to use the paralytic. The lawsuit says the state has violated the First Amendment rights of access to government proceedings and violates the prisoners' right to be free from chemical experimentation.

Attorneys for the state are seeking the dismissal of the lawsuit, saying the U.S. Supreme Court has upheld the use of midazolam and a paralytic in lethal injections.

They say death penalty critics are manipulating the judicial system and pharmaceutical market in their opposition to executions. They also say Arizona embraces national standards in executions to avoid mishaps.

Executions in Arizona were put on hold after the July 2014 death of convicted killer Joseph Rudolph Wood, who was given 15 doses of midazolam and a painkiller and who took nearly two hours to die. His attorney says the execution was botched.

Wake had an up-close perspective of the Wood execution. The judge received an emergency phone call during the execution from lawyers who asked him to halt it and order medical staff to revive the inmate. The judge did not intervene because Wood died during his conversation with lawyers.

Since then, the Department of Corrections has issued new protocols that include four different drug combinations that can be used in executions.

Similar lawsuits are playing out in other parts of the country that seek more transparency about where states get their execution drugs.

States are struggling to obtain execution drugs because European pharmaceutical companies began blocking the use of their products for lethal injections. Death penalty states refuse to disclose the sources of their drugs, though the sources are widely believed to be compounding pharmacies — organizations that make drugs tailored to the needs of a specific client. Those pharmacies do not face the same approval process or testing standards of larger pharmaceutical companies.