Ohio cannot proceed with planned executions after a federal judge on Thursday ruled that the state’s lethal injection method, involving a controversial drug, is unconstitutional.
The Buckeye State’s go-to death penalty method relies on a three-drug protocol involving midazolam, the controversial drug at the center of a nationwide debate over capital punishment’s constitutionality. Midazolam has been used in several problematic executions in Arizona, Oklahoma, Alabama, and Ohio.
U.S. District Court Magistrate Judge Michael Merz ruled that the use of midazolam in executions would create a “substantial risk of serious harm” or “an objectively intolerable risk of harm.” The three inmates who brought the lawsuit — Ronald Phillips, Gary Otte, and Raymond Tibbetts — were all scheduled to be executed in the coming months. The plaintiffs contended that the use of midazolam violated the Eighth Amendment, which prohibits the government from inflicting cruel and unusual punishment.
Ohio was the first state to use midazolam as an execution drug. That was on Jan. 16, 2014, the date of the state’s last execution. Dennis McGuire was described as “struggling and gasping loudly for air, making snorting and choking sounds which lasted for at least 10 minutes.” Midazolam is used as a sedative, but critics argue that its use is problematic because of its unreliability in rendering a person unconscious.
Midazolam is typically followed by rocuronium bromide, which stops the person’s breathing, and then potassium chloride, which stops their heart. Ohio executions were put on hold after McGuire’s due to the state’s inability to obtain more of the drug. Meanwhile, Ohio’s prosecuting attorneys association advocated last year for the state to switch its default execution method to asphyxiation by nitrogen gas.
Earlier this month, Ohio’s Department of Corrections confirmed to the Columbus Dispatch that state officials had obtained sufficient lethal injection drugs to potentially carry out dozens of executions. It isn’t clear where Ohio got the drugs from, due to the state’s drug secrecy law, which protects suppliers’ identities.
Ohio will have to decide whether to appeal Merz’s ruling. The U.S. Supreme Court upheld the constitutionality of midazolam in 2015 in a narrow 5-4 decision.
There are 138 people on Ohio’s death row.