COLUMBUS - Ohio yesterday announced it will become the first state in the nation to switch to a one-drug method of execution, essentially administering a massive barbiturate overdose.
The state also will employ a back-up of injecting drugs directly into a muscle when prison medical technicians can't find useable veins, such as occurred Sept. 15 in the failed execution of Romell Broom.
Broom's execution team struggled unsuccessfully for two hours to insert intravenous shunts into his arms to administer three drugs, prompting Gov. Ted Strickland to take the unprecedented step of stopping an execution.
When it proceeds smoothly, lethal injection lasts about 15 minutes.
Terry Collins, director of the Department of Rehabilitation and Correction, ordered the new procedures to be in place by the end of the month.
"[T]he execution team in Ohio carries out a very difficult task and does so in a professional and humane manner," he said. "Their ability to perform their duties was never in question during this study. The adoption of the new execution protocol will not only simplify the execution process but will also ensure that the execution team will be able to address any rare and exceptional circumstances."
In the moratorium during an internal review, Mr. Strickland ordered temporary reprieves for two inmates who were scheduled to follow Broom into the execution chamber in October and November.
A federal judge since has issued a stay for a third inmate scheduled to die in December. Others could follow.
Broom argued that having a prison medical technician team repeatedly insert needles to find useable veins violated his Eighth Amendment right against cruel and unusual punishment.
Mr. Collins filed an affidavit with the court yesterday explaining the new procedure. He said he would not be surprised if the change triggers a new round of litigation.
"I can't say that for sure, but I'm sure somebody out there will file something," he said.
Mr. Strickland was told of the changes earlier this week. He called them "reasonable and in accordance with Ohio's lethal injection law."
Ohio Public Defender Tim Young commended the state for the move, but he kept his litigation options open.
"With this new protocol, the state has failed to recognize that its execution method is not just about the drugs used, but also about the state's inability to administer drugs intravenously," he said. "Mr. Broom's failed execution was not due to the drugs, but to the failure to properly place an IV. The new process … works on one problem, but leaves the other untouched."
Mr. Collins noted that some states employ central intravenous lines to administer their three-drug regimens, but they use doctors who are guaranteed anonymity for their roles in the process. He said he is unable to offer a similar guarantee in Ohio.
The next execution is that of Vernon L. Smith, 37, formerly of Toledo. He is scheduled to die Jan. 7 for the 1993 robbery and murder of central Toledo carry-out owner Sohail Darwish.
Under the prior protocol, Ohio first administered thiopental sodium to render an inmate unconscious. That was followed by panacuronium bromide to paralyze the lungs and then potassium chloride to stop the heart.
Critics argued that if the sedative failed to do its job, the second two drugs could leave the condemned paralyzed and in severe pain but unable to show it.
The new protocol eliminates the second two drugs in favor of 5 grams of the first, more than double the prior dose.
The move was applauded at the University of California Berkeley school of law, which has intervened on the defense side in capital cases across the country.
"Ohio had said that everything was on the table, and getting rid of the second two drugs is something that lawyers have recommended many times in other cases," said Ty Alper, associate director of the school's Death Penalty Clinic. "No other state had taken it very seriously. … We don't know how this will affect litigation, but Ohio has taken a real step forward in abandoning this practice."
If, as in the Broom case, the execution team can't tap a useable vein, the team would have the option of switching to injection into a muscle of an overdose of midazolam, a fast-acting sedative and muscle relaxant, and hydromorphine, a powerful painkiller.
Following similar problems in the 2006 execution of Joseph Lewis Clark, formerly of Toledo, the state made minor changes but decided to retain the three-drug process.
In Clark's case, technicians struggled to find useable veins, and the team ultimately broke with protocol to proceed with one intravenous shunt instead of two.
When that vein failed, Clark raised and shook his head, repeatedly protesting, "It don't work."
Witnesses could hear him moaning and groaning for several minutes even after the curtain separating them from the execution chamber had been closed.
The execution resumed, taking about 90 minutes to complete.
Despite the changes, Mr. Collins defended Ohio's prior process, noting the U.S. Supreme Court last year upheld Kentucky's similar protocol.
No court, however, has considered Ohio's new one-drug protocol or its back-up plan.
Ohio has executed 32 inmates since it resumed carrying out the death penalty in 1999.
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