Ohio Halts All Executions As Controversy Over Lethal Injection Drug Midazolam Continues

Following a controversial botched lethal injection in 2014, Ohio is postponing all executions until 2016 as the state scrambles to secure a new drug for the procedure. The Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction announced the decision on Friday, just a few weeks after the department said it would no longer use the drugs midazolam and hydromorphone for lethal injections.

The state has postponed the executions of seven inmates — six who were scheduled for execution in 2015, and one inmate who was scheduled for January 2016. "The new dates are designed to provide DRC adequate time to secure a supply of the new execution drugs," the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction said in a statement on Friday.

The department added that the suspension will allow the state to revise its drug implementation protocol. Ohio now has 11 executions set for 2016.

On Jan. 8, the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction announced that it was switching from the two-drug cocktail of midazolam and hydromorphone to thiopental sodium, which the state previously used from 1999 to 2011. According to the department, thiopental sodium and pentobarbital are the now the only two drugs permitted for lethal injections.

The announcement came a year after the botched execution of Dennis McGuire, an inmate on Ohio's death row who was the first person to be executed in the United States with the experimental cocktail of midazolam and hydromorphone. According to eyewitness accounts, it took more than 25 minutes for McGuire to die from the injection.

Father Lawrence Hummer, a priest who works with death row inmates and witnessed the execution, wrote in The Guardian in January 2014:

Over those 11 minutes or more [McGuire] was fighting for breath, and I could see both of his fists were clenched the entire time. His gasps could be heard through the glass wall that separated us. Towards the end, the gasping faded into small puffs of his mouth. It was much like a fish lying along the shore puffing for that one gasp of air that would allow it to breathe.
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Use of midazolam in lethal injections has been controversial since McGuire's death. The drug was used as part of a three-drug cocktail in the execution of Clayton Lockett, an inmate in Oklahoma. Lockett's execution last April took over 40 minutes, and witnesses said he regained consciousness on the gurney, moaning and asking for help. The execution was eventually stopped, but Lockett then suffered a heart attack.

At the time of his death, the three-drug regimen of midazolam, vecuronium bromide and potassium chloride was untested. A state investigation into Lockett's botched execution found that midazolam was only added to the lethal injection on April 14, about two weeks before Lockett's death, because pentobarbital was not available.

On Wednesday, the Supreme Court ordered Oklahoma to suspend executions using midazolam until further notice, as the high court prepares to take up a case on the constitutionality of midazolam use for state executions. However, the high court did not ask Oklahoma to suspend executions entirely.

The Supreme Court will hear arguments in the case of midazolam in April.

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