After three years of official and unofficial moratoriums on the death penalty, Ohio is finally set to resume carrying out executions — using the same drug the state deployed in its last, botched execution.
Inmate Ronald Phillips, who’s been on death row since 1993 for the rape and murder of his girlfriend’s 3-year-old daughter, will be put to death Wednesday evening. Despite the raging controversy among pharmacologists and death penalty opponents over the sedative midazolam, Ohio plans to use it to knock Phillips out during his execution.
Once set to die in 2013, Phillips initially won a reprieve to explore the possibility of donating his kidney to his mother. Then, in 2014, Ohio executed convicted rapist and murderer Dennis McGuire with an untested two-drug lethal injection drug mixture, including midazolam. McGuire reportedly spent 15 minutes gasping and making snorting sounds before finally dying.
It was the longest execution in recent Ohio history. Midazolam has also been deployed in botched executions in Arizona, Alabama, and Oklahoma.
Following McGuire’s botched death, Ohio struggled to find appropriate lethal injection drugs after drug manufacturers and distributors became increasingly reluctant to hand them over for executions. Eventually, the state unofficially halted executions for years. In January, however, Ohio’s Department of Corrections obtained the drugs needed for a new three-drug lethal injection protocol, which still relied on midazolam as a sedative.
Phillips’ lawyers initially won a lawsuit arguing that the protocol would result in the cruel and unusual punishment, but a U.S. federal appeals court overturned the ruling in June.
“Some risk of pain is inherent in any method of execution — no matter how humane. And the Constitution does not guarantee ‘a pain-free execution,’” wrote Judge Raymond Kethledge in the majority opinion, adding that Oklahoma now uses that same protocol.
That doesn’t mean that the debate over midazolam is over. In fact, 15 pharmacology professors filed a brief on Monday alleging that Ohio shouldn’t be allowed to use midazolam in its executions, since it’s “incapable of rendering an inmate unconscious prior to the injection of the second and third drugs.”
Phillips still has a few more pending appeals that could delay his execution. His lawyers claim that Phillips, just 19 when he was convicted, was too young to be sentenced to death. Now a prison chaplain, they argue, he’s nothing like the teenager convicted of killing a toddler.
But if Phillips’ execution does go forward as planned, Ohio will become the second state to resume executions in 2017. Over the course of eight days in April, Arkansas went on an unprecedented execution spree that put four men to death.
Four more Ohio inmates are also scheduled to be executed this year.