Ohio Delays Eight Executions Amid Legal Fight

COLUMBUS, Ohio (CN) – Ohio Gov. John Kasich postponed the upcoming executions of eight death-row inmates as a court battle over the constitutionality of the state’s lethal injection protocol moves to the Sixth Circuit.

Ronald Phillips, who was sentenced to death in 1993 for the rape and murder of his girlfriend’s 3-year-old daughter, was scheduled to be executed by lethal injection on Wednesday but Kasich’s office said Friday that Phillips’ execution has been rescheduled for May 10.

The postponement comes two weeks after U.S. Magistrate Judge Michael Merz stayed the executions of Phillips, Gary Otte and Raymond Tibbetts, ruling that the three-drug cocktail the state plans to use for its executions creates a significant risk that inmates will suffer prolonged, painful deaths in violation of the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment.

Merz’s ruling centers on the first drug administered as part of the three-drug protocol, midazolam.

Midazolam is a sedative that is administered to the inmate first to induce a state of unconsciousness. Next, a paralyzing agent known as rocuronium bromide is administered to inhibit all muscular-skeletal movements. Finally, potassium chloride is administered to stop the heart.

The federal public defenders representing Phillips in his challenge of the lethal injection method argue that midazolam does not fully effectively sedate the inmates, leaving them partially conscious to suffer through the painful effects of the paralyzing agent and potassium chloride.

The midazolam three-drug protocol was last used in Ohio to execute convicted rapist and murderer Dennis McGuire in January 2014. Midazolam did not render McGuire fully unconscious, and as a result, he choked and gasped for air for much of the 24 minutes it took to execute him.

Other executions using the same drug cocktail have had similar results in Oklahoma and Arizona.

This three-drug cocktail was upheld as constitutional in the 5-4 U.S. Supreme Court ruling Glossip v. Gross, but the decision was based primarily on a lower court’s ruling that the death-row inmates who filed the action had failed to prove that midazolam is ineffective and had not identified a known and available alternative method of execution that entails a lesser risk of pain.

In her dissenting opinion, Justice Sonia Sotomayor argued that the decision left the inmates exposed to “what may well be the chemical equivalent of being burned at the stake.”

Gov. Kasich and the state of Ohio have appealed Merz’ ruling to the Sixth Circuit, arguing that the Supreme Court has already upheld the constitutionality of the midazolam lethal injection method.

But in the meantime, scheduled executions in the Buckeye State have been postponed to allow the judicial process to play out.

“While Ohio is confident its appeal will ultimately be successful given the United States Supreme Court decision in Glossip v. Gross, the appellate court’s scheduling will not allow the issue to be resolved in time to allow the state to move forward with its current execution dates,” a press release from Kasich’s office states.

Besides Phillips, the other seven death-row inmates whose 2017 execution dates have been delayed are Otte, Tibbetts, Alva Campbell Jr., William Montgomery, Robert Van Hook, Jeffrey A. Wogenstahl and Melvin Bonnell.