Ohio seeks drug reversing lethal injection process if needed

AP News
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Posted: Jan 13, 2017 4:49 PM

COLUMBUS, Ohio (AP) — Ohio's prisons agency is trying to obtain a drug that could reverse the lethal injection process if needed by stopping the effects of another drug previously used in problematic executions.

The request to use the drug would come if executioners weren't confident the first of three lethal drugs would render a prisoner unconscious, Gary Mohr, director of the Department of Rehabilitation and Correction, said in federal court testimony Jan. 6.

Mohr said he would inform Republican Gov. John Kasich and ask for a reprieve at that point.

"Governor, I am not confident that we, in fact, can achieve a successful execution. I want to reverse the effects of this," Mohr testified, describing the language he would use in such a circumstance.

Mohr testified that Ohio planned to order the drug, flumazenil, but didn't currently have it.

Prisons spokeswoman JoEllen Smith declined to comment Thursday on Mohr's testimony, a copy of which was reviewed by The Associated Press.

Flumazenil is used to reverse the effects of a sedative called midazolam when that drug causes bad reactions in patients.

Midazolam is the first drug in Ohio's new three-drug execution method. Magistrate Judge Michael Merz is weighing a challenge to this method's constitutionality, following a weeklong hearing.

Ohio plans to put child killer Ronald Phillips to death next month with midazolam and two other drugs.

On Friday, the state acknowledged it has enough drugs for a fourth execution this year, in May, while staying tight-lipped about its supply beyond that.

On Monday, the AP reported that documents show Ohio has obtained enough lethal drugs to carry out dozens of executions. Merz then ordered the state to provide "a statement of its intentions" when it came to drugs used in future executions.

State attorneys said in a Friday court filing that the news report of multiple executions didn't take into account expiration dates of the drugs, which the state wouldn't previously disclose.

The AP requested those expiration dates Friday.

The state also said without explanation that the prison system's "contingency planning" needed to be taken into consideration when looking at execution numbers.

On Oct. 3, state lawyers told Merz that Ohio planned to execute Phillips and death row inmates Raymond Tibbetts and Gary Otte this year.

"The state regrets if this response left the Court with the impression that such efforts had only resulted in a supply of drugs sufficient to proceed with the executions of Inmates Phillips, Tibbetts, and Otte," state attorneys said Friday.

Messages were left with attorneys representing Phillips.

Ohio appears to be the first state using midazolam as a lethal drug to seek a reversal drug for it, according to experts at the Washington, D.C.-based Death Penalty Information Center, Berkeley Law School's Death Penalty Clinic and Reprieve, a London-based human rights organization that tracks capital punishment issues.

Florida and Oklahoma have used midazolam as the first in a three-drug protocol. Alabama and Virginia have proposed it as part of a three-drug protocol.

Executions have been on hold in Ohio since January 2014, when Dennis McGuire gasped and snorted during the 26 minutes it took him to die, the longest execution since the state resumed putting prisoners to death in 1999.

The state used a two-drug method with McGuire, starting with midazolam, its first use for executions in the country.

Attorneys challenging the method say midazolam is unlikely to relieve an inmate's pain. The drug, which is meant to sedate inmates, also was used in a problematic 2014 execution in Arizona. But last year, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the use of midazolam in an Oklahoma case.

The state says the three-drug method is similar to its past execution process, which survived court challenges. State attorneys also say the Supreme Court ruling last year makes clear the use of midazolam is allowable.

Columbus surgeon Jonathan Groner, a lethal injection expert, said past problems with Ohio executions have come about because executioners didn't properly connect the IVs.

"A reversal drug will not help with that problem and could make it worse — if the IV is not in the vein, giving more drugs may cause more pain," Groner said.

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Andrew Welsh-Huggins can be reached on Twitter at https://twitter.com/awhcolumbus. His work can be found at http://bigstory.ap.org/content/andrew-welsh-huggins