Louisiana execution postponed to study lethal drugs

The death chamber at the Southern Ohio Corrections Facility is seen in Lucasville, Ohio, in 2005.  The family of Ohio inmate Dennis McGuire is suing the state and a drug company after he was injected with a mixture similar to the drugs Louisiana plans to use on Christopher Sepulvado.
  • The Louisiana case is one of several challenges to new lethal injection drugs across the USA.
  • European drugmakers stopped selling drugs for executions%2C prompting a shortage.
  • Some states are considering reverting to the electric chair or firing squad.
  • The execution of a Louisiana man scheduled for this week has been postponed for three months while attorneys on both sides grapple with what combination of lethal drugs will lead to his death.

    After meeting with a federal judge in Baton Rouge on Monday, attorneys for both sides agreed that the lethal-injection execution of Christopher Sepulvado, scheduled for Wednesday, should be delayed to further review the drug protocol.

    The delay is the latest in a nationwide series of controversies and legal disputes over a shortage of lethal injection drugs. Prisons have had to reformulate their lethal drug recipes after European drugmakers stopped shipping barbiturates and sedatives used in executions, raising a constitutional question of inmates’ right to be free of cruel and unusual punishment.

    A hearing on the constitutionality of Louisiana’s proposed new protocol — a mixture of midazolam, a sedative, and hydromorphone, a painkiller — is scheduled for April 7, where lawyers for the inmate will present pharmacologists and other experts to challenge the state’s lethal cocktail, said Gary Clements, a lawyer for Sepulvado.

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    “We have severe questions,” Clements said. “We want to make sure they’re giving us all the information they have.”.

    Sepulvado, 70, was convicted of the 1992 murder of his 6-year-old stepson in Mansfield, La. Prosecutors said he beat the boy and stabbed him with a screwdriver before dunking him in a scalding hot bath.

    In a statement issued Monday, officials of the Louisiana Department of Public Safety and Corrections said, “The Department has been committed throughout the entire process to following the court’s direction and carrying out the sentence humanely and in accordance with the law.”.

    Other states are facing similar challenges. The family of an Ohio inmate executed last month is suing the state and a drug company, claiming Dennis McGuire was a victim of “cruel and unusual punishment” when he appeared to “writhe in pain” for 26 minutes before succumbing to the injected drugs. McGuire was injected with a similar mixture of midazolam and hydromorphone.

    And the Georgia Supreme Court is reviewing a case of a death row inmate who is challenging a state law shielding the identity and methods of companies that make the state’s lethal injection drugs.

    The new combinations of drugs raise questions of inmates’ rights to know what drugs will lead to their deaths and avoid “cruel and unusual punishment,” said Richard Dieter, executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center, a Washington, D.C., Organization that opposes the death penalty. But prisons are being guarded with that information so as to not scare away more drugmakers, he said.

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    “Citizens, even convicted inmates, have an elementary right to know what’s being done to them,” Dieter said. “You have a right to humane treatment.”.

    For the past 30 years, U.S. Prison officials used mostly sodium thiopental to carry out more than 1,000 lethal-injection executions, he said. But in 2011, U.S. Manufacturer Hospira stopped making the drug, citing complaints from officials in Italy, where the drug was made, that it was being used in capital punishment. Most prisons switched to pentobarbital until its Danish maker, Lundbeck, restricted its sale for executions, Dieter said.

    Louisiana ran out of its stock of pentobarbital and said last week it would switch to the midazolam-hydromorphone combination, prompting the court hearing.

    As prisons’ drug stocks dwindle, some states are considering reverting to previous methods, such as the electric chair or even a firing squad, said Tania Tetlow, a Tulane University Law School professor and former federal prosecutor. States switched to the more palatable lethal injection in the 1970s, but the electric chair and firing squad were never ruled unconstitutional by the Supreme Court, she said.

    As more states wrestle with lethal injection legality, the high court may revisit the death penalty issue, Tetlow said. “It’s an awkward conversation to have,” she said. “Even people who support the death penalty don’t want to talk about the means.”.

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