Lawyers for four Oklahoma inmates set to receive lethal injections this winter filed an emergency request for a delay on Friday, claiming that a sedative the state plans to use in the executions does not reliably induce the deep coma needed for a humane death and that its use “constitutes human experimentation.”
If no stay is granted, the scheduled execution on Thursday of one of the inmates, Charles Warner, would be the state’s first since the bungled killing of Clayton Lockett in April last year. Lockett gasped and struggled against his restraints before dying 43 minutes into the procedure.
Warner had been scheduled to die the same night, but after the Lockett episode, the state temporarily halted executions to improve training and administration procedures. Warner was condemned to die for the 1997 rape and murder of an 11-month-old girl.
A state inquiry determined that in Lockett’s case, a doctor failed to properly insert an intravenous needle through the prisoner’s groin, causing the sedative and then the paralytic and heart-stopping agents to diffuse in surrounding tissue.
Officials have developed new procedures they say would prevent such an error from recurring. However, they also decided to double the dose of the sedative, midazolam, in future executions.
Last month, a US District Court judge in Oklahoma ruled against a similar appeal for a delay, saying that courts “should not sit as a board of inquiry as to best practices” and asserting that midazolam had been used without problems in about a dozen executions elsewhere.
The same drug was also involved in prolonged executions last year in Ohio and Arizona, and many medical experts say its effects at high dosages are too unknown and unpredictable to justify its use.
Medical experts testifying on behalf of the four prisoners before a US District Court in Oklahama said no scientific evidence existed that a higher dose would reliably induce a coma, challenging the credentials of the physician who testified in favor of the state’s plan.
In medical procedures, midazolam is often used in low doses to relax patients, but it is normally followed with a powerful anesthetic agent.
Midazolam “is not approved for use — nor is it ever used — as general anesthesia for surgical procedures,” according to the emergency request the inmates filed with the 10th US Circuit Court of Appeals in Denver, Colorado.
Because there has been no research or clinical experience with the high doses being tried in executions, many experts say there is no way to reliably predict the effects.
“It is experimentation,” Harvard University anesthesiology associate professor David Waisel said in an interview.
Oklahoma is one of several states trying new drug combinations as barbiturates traditionally used in lethal injections have become scarce.
Florida has executed several prisoners using midazolam at the higher dose now adopted by Oklahoma and followed, in a similar sequence, by a muscle relaxant that impedes breathing and potassium chloride, a caustic agent that stops the heart, but causes excruciating pain if the inmate is not unconscious.
While the Florida executions appeared to go smoothly, Waisel said any failure of the sedative could have gone undetected.
“Once you paralyze an inmate so they cannot move, you have no way of knowing if they are feeling pain,” he said.
On Thursday, Ohio state officials said they would stop using the sedative and delay executions until they could find a source for traditional anesthetics.
Ohio has had a moratorium on executions since January last year, when a prisoner sedated with midazolam and a subsequent narcotic, gasped and clenched his fists for more than 20 minutes.
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