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Oklahoma's controversial lethal injection protocols are constitutional and the state can proceed with the scheduled executions of four death row inmates early next year, a federal judge ruled on Monday.
U.S. District Judge Stephen Friot denied a request for a preliminary injunction that was requested by a group of 21 Oklahoma death row inmates who argued the use of the sedative midazolam as the first drug in a three-drug combination the state administers risks subjecting them to unconstitutionally cruel and unusual punishment.
The inmates sued after the April 29 execution of Clayton Lockett, who writhed on the gurney, mumbled and lifted his head during his 43-minute execution that the state tried to halt before it was over. Lockett's execution was the first in Oklahoma using midazolam, which also has been used in problematic executions in Ohio and Arizona.
Arizona meanwhile is scrapping its lethal injection protocol, used in the execution of Joseph Wood, which lasted nearly two hours and took 15 doses. Officials announced the change Monday after a state-commissioned review of the troubling July execution, even as they insisted it was "handled appropriately."
The three-drug protocol that Arizona now plans to use — midazolam, the paralytic vecuronium bromide and the heart-stopper potassium chloride — is the same combination that Oklahoma used in the botched execution of Lockett.
An investigation found improper placement of the IV, and not the drugs themselves, caused that debacle, in which Lockett regained consciousness.
Witnesses to Wood's execution described him gasping for more than an hour, and an emergency hearing on whether to stop the procedure and try to resuscitate him was under way when the inmate was finally pronounced dead. In a statement Monday, Corrections Director Charles Ryan said an outside review of the execution showed it was "done appropriately and with the utmost professionalism."
“This independent review concluded that at all times following the administration of the execution protocol the inmate was fully sedated, was totally unresponsive to stimuli, and as a result did not suffer," he added. "In fact, the Pima County medical examiner is cited as reporting that the breathing pattern exhibited by the inmate prior to his death is a normal bodily response to dying, even in someone highly sedated."
Dale Baich, a lawyer for Wood, said the probe did not explain why the drugs did not work the way prison officials intended.
"The state should release all of the documentation and witness reports that went into this review. Only through discovery in a court of law will there be a truly independent and comprehensive examination of what went wrong during Mr. Wood's nearly two-hour execution,” he said.
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— Tracy Connor, with the Associated Press