By Jon Herskovitz
(Reuters) - A federal judge in Phoenix will hear arguments this week about resuming executions in Arizona, where a 2014 lethal injection that took nearly two hours raised questions about the state's death chamber protocols and the chemicals it uses to kill inmates.
The case is the latest to raise questions about the drugs used in many states to execute prisoners, and it may wind up putting the issue back for review by the U.S. Supreme Court.
Arizona last year changed its lethal injection procedures following the troubling 2014 execution of Joseph Wood, but lawyers for seven Arizona death row inmates contend new guidelines and drugs will violate U.S. constitutional protections against cruel and unusual punishment.
A major issue at the hearing set for Wednesday in U.S. district court will be the sedative midazolam, a valium-like drug critics contend does not achieve the level of unconsciousness required for surgery and is therefore unsuitable for executions.
The drug was used in Wood's execution along with a narcotic, hydromorphone. He was seen gasping for air during a nearly two-hour procedure where he received 15 rounds of drug injections. Lethal injections are supposed to result in death in a matter of minutes.
Under the new protocols, Arizona plans to use midazolam along with a drug that causes paralysis and another that stops the heart. A similar combination was used in Oklahoma, which had a troubled execution where an inmate was seen twisting on a death chamber gurney.
Lawyers for the inmates contend the source of the drugs and their purity have been cloaked in secrecy, since European makers and U.S. pharmaceutical company Pfizer Inc halted sales of drugs used in executions to prison systems in recent years. They also charge that if midazolam is truly effective there would be no need for a paralytic agent, which could be used to mask pain.
The lawyers want executions to put future executions on hold while the court reviews the protocols.
"Officials in Arizona have fought tooth and nail to protect that secrecy, which, along with the use of an experimental drug combination, only serves to increase the risk of more problematic executions," said Dale Baich, an attorney for the inmates.
The state contends its protocols correct previous problems, and point to a June 2015 U.S. Supreme Court decision that allowed the use of midazolam in executions.
"I would ask the (district) court to remember that victims and state governments have rights and interests, too, including an important interest in the timely enforcement of a sentence and the state's interest to enforce its own laws," David Weinzweig argued on behalf of Arizona at a hearing this year.
(Reporting by Jon Herskovitz; Editing by Tom Brown)