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Ohio Postpones 8 Executions Amidst Legal Challenge To Lethal Injection Procedure

Ohio Gov. John Kasich speaking on Feb. 1. Kasich has postponed the state's next eight executions amidst a legal challenge to Ohio's lethal injection protocol.
Andrew Welsh-Huggins
Ohio Gov. John Kasich speaking on Feb. 1. Kasich has postponed the state's next eight executions amidst a legal challenge to Ohio's lethal injection protocol.

Gov. John Kasich has put Ohio executions on hold until May, citing a legal challenge to the state's three-drug lethal injection protocol.

The governor's office released a statement saying it had postponed the execution dates for the next eight prisoners on death row, including the next prisoner to die, Ronald Phillips, who had his date moved from next Wednesday to May 10.

Executions have been on hold in Ohio since Jan. 16, 2014, when the state used a sedative called midazolam during the execution of Dennis McGuire.

It took 24 minutes for McGuire to die and he "started struggling and gasping loudly for air, making snorting and choking sounds which lasted for at least 10 minutes," according to a witness.

The state had planned to resume using midazolam in a new lethal injection protocol this year, but in January a federal judge rejected the state's three-drug procedure, on the grounds that midazolam is not sufficiently humane in its effects, as we have reported.

The drug has also been used during botched executions in Arizona, Oklahoma and Alabama.

After five days of hearings, U.S. District Court Magistrate Judge Michael Merz blocked three upcoming executions in a decision issued Thursday morning, writing that the "use of midazolam as the first drug in Ohio's present three-drug protocol will create a 'substantial risk of serious harm' or an 'objectively intolerable risk of harm.' "

Merz also wrote that barbiturates offer a potentially preferable alternative to midazolam. Barbiturates such as pentobarbital were the lethal injection drugs of choice until pharmaceutical companies began blocking their sale for executions, as The Two-Way has reported.

Ohio says it has made numerous unsuccessful efforts to find pentobarbital, according to The Associated Press:

"In a court filing last week, state attorneys said they asked seven other states for the drug. The prisons agency also tried in vain to obtain the active ingredient in pentobarbital in hopes of having a compounded version made, the filing said.

"The filing says Ohio asked Alabama, Arizona, Florida, Georgia, Missouri, Texas and Virginia for the drug."

There are currently 140 people on death row in Ohio.

The state of Ohio has appealed Merz's decision, arguing that the three-drug combination does not violate the Constitution and that the state should be allowed to go ahead with executions. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the 6th Circuit has scheduled its next hearing on the case for later this month.

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Rebecca Hersher (she/her) is a reporter on NPR's Science Desk, where she reports on outbreaks, natural disasters, and environmental and health research. Since coming to NPR in 2011, she has covered the Ebola outbreak in West Africa, embedded with the Afghan army after the American combat mission ended, and reported on floods and hurricanes in the U.S. She's also reported on research about puppies. Before her work on the Science Desk, she was a producer for NPR's Weekend All Things Considered in Los Angeles.
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