Ohio delays all executions until 2017

The Department of Rehabilitation and Correction announced through a press release on Oct. 19 that the state of Ohio will not perform executions until January 2017. This is due to an inability to find a sufficient supply of the drugs needed to carry out an execution by lethal injection.

“This postponement affects the proposed death dates of 12 death row inmates that were scheduled for execution by lethal injection,” said JoEllen Smith of the communications office the Department of Rehabilitation and Correction.

Smith declined an interview due to involvement in pending litigation.

This stopgap measure gives the state more time to locate sufficient supplies of pentobarbital or thiopental sodium, which are given to the inmate intravenously to induce death.

The DRC press release from Oct. 23 said, “DRC continues to seek all legal means to obtain the drugs necessary to carry out court ordered executions, but over the past few years it has become exceedingly difficult to secure those drugs because of severe supply and distribution restrictions.”

According to the Department of Rehabilitation and Correction, five syringes of Pentobarbital are prepared on the morning of the execution by a drug administrator in the presence of a second drug administrator. After the Warden determines there is a sufficient quantity of the drug to perform a successful execution, the drug administrator then draws five grams of pentobarbital, 100 ml of a 50mg/mL solution into syringes labeled 1 and 2.

An additional set of syringes, labeled 3 and 4, are available with the same drug in the event that the initial dose of Pentobarbital has not successfully carried out the execution. While these syringes are available, they are not loaded with the drug until it is determined they are needed. In the event that thiopental sodium will be used for the execution, five syringes will be prepared with five grams of thiopental sodium, 200 ml of a 25mg/ml solution. An additional supply of five syringes will be available in the event they are needed. 

Of the 12 executions scheduled for 2016, 11 of them have been moved from their previously scheduled dates. The first execution of 2017 is scheduled to take place Jan. 12. Ronald R. Phillips, inmate number A279-109 had originally been scheduled for execution on Jan. 21, 2016.

According to Newsweek, Phillips murdered and sexually assaulted the 3-year-old daughter of his girlfriend in 1993. He was convicted and sentenced to death row, but the recent controversy surrounding the lack of supply of drugs, and Ohio shifting to a controversial cocktail of drugs never before used by the state to carry out an execution has allowed him to evade his sentence for the time being.

While the new drugs were deemed a failure, and Ohio switched back to Pentobarbital; they are still seeking a supplier. The moratorium on executions is simply a result of supply exceeding demand. There is not enough available supply to carry out the scheduled executions properly, and therefore the state has been forced to delay them.

Lethal injections

States first began using lethal injection as a method of execution in 1977.

The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 1972 the death penalty as it was then carried out unconstitutional and suspended all executions. The suspension was lifted in 1976.

There was a hiatus of the use of executions in the U.S. during the middle of the century, said Deborah Denno, a law professor and director of the Neuroscience and Law Center at New York’s Fordham University, who has been researching lethal injection for more than 20 years.

Oklahoma was the first state to adopt lethal injection as a safer, more humane alternative to the electric chair.

“The prior methods had proven problematic,” Denno said. “(Lethal injections) seemed safer and more humane at the time.”

Currently, 31 states, including Ohio, have the death penalty in place.

Drugs in lethal injections

Before 2008, lethal injections were made up of three drugs:

–Sodium thiopental, which induces unconsciousness

–Pancuronium bromide, a paralytic agent that prevents the inmate from moving during the execution

–Potassium chloride, which induces cardiac arrest

This sequence was created in 1977 by Oklahoma’s former chief medical examiner Jay Chapman. It was not developed or reviewed by any pharmacological review boards.

It usually takes around five minutes for an inmate to die after the lethal injection has been administered.

After 2008, Denno said a drug shortage led to problems in getting the components of lethal injections.

Abbott Laboratories, an American worldwide healthcare company, stopped producing sodium thiopental due to a chemical shortage. The company also stopped making the drug because sodium thiopental, which was previously used as anesthesia during surgeries, is an older drug being replaced by other drugs in the U.S.

Hospira, Inc., an Illinois-based drug company who distributed the sodium thiopental Abbott Laboratories produced, attempted to use a plant in Italy to produce the drug, but Italy’s government refused on the grounds that the nation does not support the death penalty.

This has caused an issue for death penalty states, which are no longer able to use the traditional three-drug compound.

Some states have tried using Pentobarbital, a sedative barbiturate, in place of sodium thiopental.

However, the Denmark-based company that produces pentobarbital, H. Lundbeck, stopped selling to the U.S. when the company found it its drug was being used to put inmates to death, Denno said.

Other states have looked into using propofol, an anesthetic, produced by German drug company Fresenius Kabi. However, the company also stopped selling to the U.S. when it found out Missouri wanted to use its drug in lethal injections.

States are now faced with a dilemma: There are few, if any, global companies willing to sell the proper drugs to the U.S. if they are being used in lethal injections, so states have had to turn to less standard practices.

The American Medical Association has forbidden its members from participating in executions, so some states, including Oklahoma, use private, anonymous pharmacists to obtain the drugs.

Ohio, which ran out of sodium thiopental in 2013, has attempted to use an untested two-drug compound made up of midazolam, a sedative, and hydromorphone, a morphine derivative, which are both used regularly in hospitals.

However, the only time it was used, the inmate, Dennis McGuire, took 25 minutes to die and appeared to gasp and snort throughout the execution.

House Bill 663 was passed and signed into law in December 2014 to allow small drug manufacturing companies known as compounding pharmacies to produce execution drugs anonymously. However, none of these pharmacies have signed on to do so.

Ohio is continuing to search for ways to get the drugs they can use for lethal injections that a drug company will agree to sell to the state.

Alternatives to lethal injection

The shortage of execution drugs is not only an Ohio issue, but a national one, and some states have explored alternative methods to carry out executions. Tennessee has brought back the electric chair and Utah recently signed a bill allowing for the firing squad to be another method of execution. States like Texas and Missouri have had success in obtaining lethal injection drugs from compounding pharmacies.

What’s next for Ohio?

Currently, Ohio legislatures are discussing possible alternatives of execution methods since executions have been delayed until 2017.

“I know some people have suggested nitrogen gas, some people said the state has plenty of electric and plenty of rope,” said David Roper, legislative aide for State Senator Cecil Thomas. “Obviously any execution that is agreed upon would have to pass the constitutional test outlined by court ruling. I do know that some people are exploring options.”

One of the most discussed options is the electric chair, where a jolt of between 500 and 2000 volts of electricity is surged through the body in 30 seconds.

“This method is the most likely to come back of all of the alternatives,” said Anne Holsinger of the Death Penalty Information Center. “The Ohio legislature could consider a measure like that but it would have to be proposed in the legislature. Even if a bill was passed to bring back an older method, it would likely be challenged in the courts by inmates on death row who would argue that constituted cruel and unusual punishment.”

Ohio also has the option of bringing back the firing squad, where a where a group of officers fire their guns simultaneously to hit a vital organ of the condemned inmate for a fast execution. This year, Utah became the only state in the U.S. that authorizes this execution method.

Emily Mills, Allie Johnson, Ashlyne Wilson, Alexis Oswald, Nathan Havenner and Jarrod Evangelist are city reporters for The Kent Stater. Contact Emily at [email protected], Allie at [email protected], Ashlyne at [email protected], Alexis at [email protected], Nathan at [email protected] and Jarrod at [email protected].