NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — The Tennessee Supreme Court postponed execution dates for four inmates, effectively halting all executions while the courts decide whether current protocols for putting people to death are constitutional.
Tennessee last executed a prisoner in 2009. Since then, legal challenges and problems obtaining lethal injection drugs have stalled new executions.
In 2013 and 2014, the state tried to jump-start the process with a new one-drug lethal injection method and the reinstatement of the electric chair as a backup. Beginning in December 2013, the court set new execution dates for 11 inmates. One inmate died in prison, and the execution dates for the others have been postponed as they approach because of legal challenges to the new methods.
On Friday, the court postponed the last of the scheduled execution dates. It will set new dates after the legal questions are settled.
States across the country have been struggling to find a method of execution that will stand up to legal challenges. And obtaining lethal injection drugs has been getting harder.
As manufacturers have refused to sell drugs to prisons for executions, prison officials across the U.S. have turned to compounding pharmacies, which make drugs specifically for individual clients. But those versions have also become difficult to come by because pharmacists are reluctant to expose themselves to possible harassment.
Last month, the American Pharmacists Association adopted a policy discouraging its members from providing drugs for lethal injections, saying that runs contrary to the role of pharmacists as health care providers.
Death row inmates challenging Tennessee's lethal injection method recently submitted an affidavit from University of Utah College of Pharmacy professor James H. Ruble that questions whether even a willing compounding pharmacist could provide the pentobarbital that Tennessee and several other states need for executions.
Ruble says in the affidavit that the main ingredient for pentobarbital is unavailable from the six primary commercial sources that compounding pharmacists buy their ingredients from.
Tennessee last year reinstated electrocution as an alternative if lethal injection drugs are unavailable or a court rules the procedure unconstitutional. But that change has brought yet another legal challenge.
Other states are considering their own alternatives. Utah last month reinstated the firing squad as a backup method if it can't obtain lethal injection drugs. In Oklahoma, lawmakers approved nitrogen gas as a backup execution method. Republican Gov. Mary Fallin supports the death penalty but has not said whether she will sign the bill.