Arizona will not be able to execute anyone on death row until at least October because of two ongoing federal court cases.
Executions have been on hold in Arizona since July 2014, when the state miscalculated whether a new combination of drugs for lethal injection would kill efficiently.
Death-row prisoner Joseph Wood gasped and snorted on the execution gurney for nearly two hours as executioners hired by the Arizona Department of Corrections pumped 15 doses of drugs into him. A single dose was supposed to be lethal.
A U.S. District Court judge in Phoenix immediately thereafter imposed a temporary injunction on state executions, pending investigation and thorough litigation by attorneys representing other death-row prisoners against the state's execution methods.
Meanwhile, a second federal lawsuit was filed in October 2014 by a coalition of media outlets, including The Arizona Republic, demanding transparency into execution policies.
Trials have been set in both cases, for July and September, respectively, meaning that the earliest an execution could be carried out would be October or November — assuming the state can find suitable drugs to perform them.
Corrections officials have avowed in court filings that they do not possess the fast-acting barbiturates,sodium thiopental or pentobarbital, which are listed in its official execution protocol, and neither is currently available from pharmaceutical manufacturers for use in executions.
The media case will first go to trial July 25-27, before Judge G. Murray Snow. That lawsuit already has resulted in changes to the state's execution protocol.
Snow ordered that Corrections officials allow journalists and other witnesses to watch over closed-circuit TV as the prisoner is walked into the death chamber and strapped to the gurney.
In previous executions, the camera went on only when the prisoner already was strapped down.
Snow also ordered that a camera be installed above the control board holding the syringes that the execution medical team pushes into the catheters that are inserted into the prisoner.
That change came into effect because witnesses to the Wood execution were unaware that more than one dose had to be injected.
But questions remain in the lawsuit as to revealing the qualifications of the medical team and the quality and origins of the drugs, information that Corrections officials have kept close to the vest.
In its defense, Corrections points to an Arizona statute shielding the identity of executioners and argues that it extends to providers of drugs as well, and that revealing such information opens the department to challenges from anti-death-penalty activists intent on shutting down further access to the drugs.
The original case was filed on behalf of death-row prisoners facing execution, and it challenges the manner in which prisoners are executed and the tendency for the department to unilaterally change the protocol shortly before executions take place.
It will go to trial Sept. 11, likely for two weeks before Judge Neil Wake, who has presided over many lethal-injection cases in recent years and who imposed the current injunction against executions.
That case has also resulted in changes to execution protocol, particularly in removing the drug midazolam from executions.
Midazolam was one of the drugs used in the botched Arizona execution as well as in drawn-out or botched executions in Oklahoma and Ohio.
The current protocol depends on the barbiturates sodium thiopental and pentobarbital, used successfully in many past executions, alone or in combination with other drugs.
But neither is readily available to prisons.
Thiopental is no longer manufactured in the U.S., and a federal court banned its importation after it was discovered that Arizona and other states had imported it illegally from Britain in 2010.
Efforts are underway by Arizona and other states to lift the U.S. Food and Drug Administration restrictions on the drug and free up shipments of the drug they tried to import from India in 2015, well after the ban, that were confiscated at airports by federal authorities.
Pharmaceutical companies refuse to sell pentobarbital for executions, but some states have turned to compounding pharmacies to prepare special batches.
Still at issue in that lawsuit is the sole discretion of Department of Corrections Director Charles Ryan to make changes in the protocol as he sees fit.
Wake and other federal judges have pointed out Ryan's history of changing drugs at the last minute. And the attorneys representing the inmates also object to a peculiar new clause in the protocol suggesting that the prisoners supply their own drugs.
Critics of that plan say there is an obvious conflict of interest because inmates would be supplying drugs to kill themselves. And, they add, it's impossible to do so because thiopental and pentobarbital are controlled substances, and neither inmates nor their lawyers would have access to the drugs.
If and when the two cases are resolved, it will remain to be seen how Arizona will find drugs to continue executions.
Source: AZ Central, March 9, 2017
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