Ohio to Carry Out Execution With Never-Before-Used Lethal Cocktail

An avalanche of public scrutiny awaits. But will Ohio blink?

A view of the death chamber from the witness room at the Southern Ohio Correctional Facility in Lucasville, Ohio. 
National Journal
Dustin Volz
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Dustin Volz
Oct. 29, 2013, 4:12 a.m.

Ohio an­nounced Monday that it plans to put to death a pris­on­er next month with a two-drug cock­tail that has nev­er be­fore been tried by any state for an ex­e­cu­tion.

On Nov. 14, the state plans to use a leth­al com­bin­a­tion of Midazolam, a sed­at­ive, and Hy­dro­morphone, a paink­iller, to ex­ecute Ron­ald Phil­lips, 40, who was sen­tenced to death 20 years ago for the rape and murder of 3-year-old Sheila Mar­ie Evans.

Ohio’s de­cision ar­rives on the heels of an ex­e­cu­tion that took place in Flor­ida on Oct. 15, where the Sun­shine State also used an un­tried pro­ced­ure — a three-drug cock­tail also in­clud­ing Midazolam — to com­ply with a death sen­tence. The ex­e­cu­tion las­ted 14 minutes, or twice what is nor­mally ex­pec­ted with the pre­vi­ous drug of choice.

Ohio, like Flor­ida and Texas, is one of a grow­ing num­ber of death-pen­alty states scram­bling to re­place the chem­ic­als it nor­mally re­lies on to carry out ex­e­cu­tions. Mis­souri also planned to use an un­tested drug — Propo­fol, an an­es­thet­ic that gained no­tori­ety for con­trib­ut­ing to Mi­chael Jack­son’s death — for an ex­e­cu­tion this month, but the gov­ernor pro­hib­ited its use, cit­ing con­cerns it could in­flict an un­ne­ces­sary amount of pain.

“Ohio re­viewed all avail­able in­form­a­tion from oth­er states, and con­sidered all avail­able op­tions,” Ricky Sey­fang, a spokes­wo­man for the state’s De­part­ment of Re­hab­il­it­a­tion and Cor­rec­tion, told Na­tion­al Journ­al earli­er this month. “The com­bin­a­tion of Midazolam and Hy­dro­morphone has already been part of Ohio’s ex­e­cu­tion policy since Novem­ber 2009, when those two drugs were iden­ti­fied for in­tra­mus­cu­lar in­jec­tion, as a backup to the in­tra­ven­ous in­jec­tion.” Sey­fang did not provide fur­ther de­tail about how the drugs were se­lec­ted.

Ohio has seen a flurry of changes to its leth­al-in­jec­tion pro­tocol in re­cent years. Un­til 2009, the state re­lied on a three-drug com­bin­a­tion that was then stand­ard across most states. In Decem­ber of that year, Ohio be­came the first state to ad­opt a single, leth­al dose of so­di­um thi­opent­al, be­fore again chan­ging its pro­ced­ure in 2011 to al­low for only Pento­bar­bit­al, a drug com­monly used to eu­th­an­ize pets, to do the trick. Its one-drug use of Pento­bar­bit­al was also a first.

But Dan­ish drug man­u­fac­turer Lun­d­beck, buck­ling un­der pub­lic pres­sure in the cap­it­al-pun­ish­ment-free European Uni­on, hal­ted sales of Pento­bar­bit­al to the states, and Ohio ex­hausted its sup­ply of Pento­bar­bit­al in Septem­ber. The state then de­term­ined it would con­sult com­pound­ing phar­ma­cies — where pre­scrip­tion drugs are in­di­vidu­ally craf­ted to fit a per­son’s med­ic­al needs — to se­cure its Pento­bar­bit­al, but up­dated its ex­e­cu­tion policy to al­low for a backup cock­tail — Midazolam and Hy­dro­morphone — in the event Pento­bar­bit­al was un­avail­able.

Com­pound­ing phar­ma­cies are lightly reg­u­lated and don’t want to be pub­licly iden­ti­fied as places that make drugs used for ex­e­cu­tions, and it ap­pears Ohio had little luck find­ing any will­ing to sup­ply Pento­bar­bit­al. Mis­souri is now also at­tempt­ing to se­cure Pento­bar­bit­al from com­pound­ing phar­ma­cies.

Wheth­er Ohio forges ahead with its un­tested cock­tail, like Flor­ida, or suc­cumbs to pub­lic pres­sure, like Mis­souri, re­mains to be seen. But bar­ring an un­likely spate of ex­e­cu­tion in­nov­a­tion with­in the med­ic­al com­munity, the routes states can walk to ful­fill their death sen­tences are be­com­ing in­creas­ingly nar­row.

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