Federal Judge Extends Moratorium on Ohio Executions

By Julia Cole, Price Benowitz Junior Editor

A federal judge has extended a moratorium on executions in Ohio as recent changes in the state’s lethal injection procedures are examined, according to the Associated Press.

A judge extended a stay on Ohio executions.

Judge Gregory Frost issued a one-page ruling on Aug. 8, extending a temporary freeze that was originally put in place following the bungled execution of Dennis McGuire. The stay will delay executions scheduled for September, October, and November until Jan. 15, 2015 at the earliest as the effectiveness of the drug combination used in McGuire’s execution is examined.

McGuire was convicted of the 1989 rape and murder of a pregnant woman. A new, two-drug cocktail of the sedative midazolam and painkiller hydromorphone was administered in his January execution, which lasted for approximately 25 minutes and during which witnesses said he was gasping for breath.

Ohio had turned to the two-drug combination after experiencing difficulty procuring its preferred method of lethal injection: a single dose of compounded pentobarbital. Following McGuire’s execution, the state of Ohio announced that it would increase the dosages of midazolam and hydromorphone used in lethal injections. Frost’s stay will not only provide the state with more time to re-examine its lethal injection protocols, but also the opportunity to continue the search for its first choice, pentobarbital , which proponents claim has used without incident in Missouri and Texas.

Adding fuel to the fire of an already heated debate over capital punishment across the nation, McGuire’s was the first of several botched execution attempts in the U.S. this year. In April, Clayton Lockett was seen writhing and groaning on the gurney before eventually dying of a heart attack almost 45 minutes after his lethal injection was administered in Oklahoma. More recently, the July execution of Arizona inmate Joseph Wood, which used the same combination of drugs that Ohio used for McGuire, lasted for almost two hours.

With questions mounting as to the effectiveness of lethal injection drugs, Ohio’s execution hold highlights the challenges many states face in obtaining drugs they can use to carry out capital punishment. Previously, the main method of administering lethal injection consisted of a three-drug formula. A sedative was used to render the inmate unconscious, followed by a paralytic and, finally, potassium chloride, which stopped the heart. However, most of the manufacturers of those drugs have stopped selling pharmaceuticals for use in executions due to ethical concerns.

JoEllen Smith, a spokeswoman for the state prison system, stated that the Department of Rehabilitation and Correction will “continue to abide by the stay orders. DRC remains committed to carrying out executions in a humane and lawful manner.”

We must ask: What is humane about letting inmates suffer and strain for hours on end as they wait for death to overcome them? What is humane about making people wait an agonizing period of time as their appeals are processed?

Capital punishment has long been condemned by civil rights proponents as well as legal professionals in the criminal defense field because of its inherently cruel nature. That cruelty is increased exponentially when the means for achieving death are improperly administered. As a criminal defense practice dedicated to protecting the accused from unjust treatment, we join many others in urging the Ohio prison system to take this opportunity to thoroughly examine its lethal injection procedures and to make an honest assessment of the cruel and unusual nature of the death penalty.