Ohio will no longer use an experimental combination of lethal injection drugs that had been administered in two widely criticized executions in the U.S. last year, state officials announced Thursday.
The announcement comes as a federal judge was set next week to lift a months-long ban on capital punishment in Ohio, which last year became one of several legal battlegrounds over lethal injection procedure.
Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction officials said their decision would probably set back the Feb. 11 execution date for Ronald Phillips, who was convicted of the 1993 beating, rape and murder of his girlfriend’s 3-year-old daughter.
Midazolam, a sedative, and hydromorphone, a painkiller, made up the experimental two-drug cocktail used in Ohio's January 2014 execution of Dennis McGuire, who seemed to gasp and heave as he took more than 15 minutes to die. McGuire was convicted in the 1989 rape and murder of Joy Stewart, a 22-year-old pregnant woman.
Lethal injections, the preferred manner of execution in states where capital punishment is carried out, are often peaceful and can last as little as 10 minutes.
McGuire's son witnessed the execution and sued the state and drugmakers over his father's death, saying midazolam and hydromorphone were not fit to be used together for lethal injections.
McGuire's death marked the first time the drug combination had been used in a U.S. execution. The combination was used again in Arizona's July execution of convicted murderer Joseph Rudolph Wood III, who took nearly two hours to die as officials administered 15 doses of the drugs. Arizona officials said in December they would no longer use the midazolam-hydromorphone combination.
Midazolam was also one of three drugs used in Oklahoma's execution last April of Clayton Lockett, who writhed and gasped for 43 minutes before dying after a bloody procedure in which an executioner was unable to properly find a vein.
The controversial executions in Ohio, Oklahoma and Arizona further galvanized death penalty opponents at a time when execution drugs like pentobarbital had already gotten harder to find from mainstream distributors.
State officials across the U.S., including in Ohio, responded by getting drugs from less-regulated compounding pharmacies or by using unusual combinations of drugs to carry out lethal injections.
Ohio officials have spent the year since McGuire's death reviewing their execution protocols, which federal Judge Gregory Frost had accused them of not following.
Frost's temporary ban on executions in Ohio, handed down in May, was set to lift on Jan. 15.
On Thursday, Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction Director Gary Mohr informed the judge of the change in drug protocol, which also adds thiopental sodium, joining pentobarbital, as a drug that can be used in lethal injections.
Thiopental sodium, a sedative, had previously been used in executions in Ohio from 1999 to 2011, state officials said.
Corrections officials did not give a reason for the drug change in a statement. A spokeswoman for the department did not immediately respond to a request for comment late Thursday.
Phillips is one of four inmates who filed a 1st Amendment lawsuit against state officials in December, arguing that a newly enacted state law illegally shields the identities of executioners.
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