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The first execution under Virginia's new drug secrecy laws didn't go as planned

Virginia’s first execution in more than a year lasted 48 minutes, about a half hour longer than expected, raising questions about the controversial drug used in this case and several botched cases of capital punishment.

After receiving a cocktail of lethal injection drugs Wednesday night, 37-year-old Ricky Gray, convicted of murdering a family of four in 2006, was pronounced dead at 9:42 p.m at Greensville Correctional Center. Corrections officials hid Gray from view behind a curtain for more than 30 minutes, raising questions about the process. The prison said Thursday the delay was due to difficulty finding a vein to place the intravenous line, according to the Richmond Times Dispatch. Gray was also heard breathing heavily and “snored loudly several times” after receiving the injection, the Associated Press reported.


Gray was sentenced to death after cutting the throats of a Richmond couple and their 9-year-old and 4-year-old daughters while high on PCP on New Year’s Day 2006.

In Gray’s case, the Virginia Department of Corrections used midazolam, a drug at the center of the heated debate over the death penalty’s constitutionality. Midazolam has been used in several high-profile botched executions, like Joseph Wood’s in Arizona. Prison officials injected Wood, who finally died after two hours, with 15 times more lethal injection drugs than required.

Critics of midazolam equate its use to cruel and unusual punishment because of its questionable effectiveness in putting someone to sleep. Midazolam is used to sedate an inmate, followed by rocuronium bromide, which stops their breathing, and then potassium chloride, which stops their heart.

While current Virginia law allows death row inmates to choose between death by electrocution and lethal injection, Gray appealed to the Supreme Court on Tuesday, requesting a stay of his execution based on the potential unconstitutionality of Virginia’s drug secrecy laws. Passed in April 2016, the laws allows pharmacies — which Virginia’s Department of Corrections hire to concoct the drugs — to conceal their identities. The Supreme Court, which upheld the constitutionality of midazolam for use in executions last year, declined to intervene. Gray’s execution was the first under the new drug secrecy laws.

In 2016, the Associated Press filed a Freedom of Information Request and found that Virginia had paid $66,000 to an unnamed pharmacy for vials of midazolam and potassium chloride. That’s 63 times as much as the state paid in 2015 for the same drug package.

Prison officials in death penalty states have increasingly turned to midazolam amid a nationwide shortage of more traditional lethal injection drugs, caused, in part, by the refusal by European labs to export them to the U.S. to be used as a tool of capital punishment.