Criminal Justice
 

Execution of child-killer delayed six months after botched lethal injections elsewhere

The execution of a convicted child-killer has been delayed at least six months as Louisiana prison officials review the planned dosage of lethal drugs — or perhaps find an alternative method for carrying out his death sentence.

Several states have vowed to increase their dosage of execution drugs in light of unorthodox executions recently, including one in Oklahoma in which the prisoner tried to get up from the death gurney after injections began.

Last week, Pam Laborde, spokeswoman for the Department of Public Safety and Corrections, said that the state’s execution protocol had not changed. She changed that stance after department lawyers met with a federal judge Wednesday:

We are committed to making sure justice is served in accordance with the law. A temporary stay has been granted for six months as the legislature considers alternative methods of execution and as the Department (DPS&C) is reviewing the most effective dosage levels for the drug protocol.

Death-row inmate Christopher Sepulvado’s stay of execution is in conjunction with a delay in a trial that will examine the state’s lethal-injection practice. A hearing had been set for June; it has now been pushed back to November.

The trial is being held so a federal court can determine whether the combination of the sedative midazolam and the painkiller hydromorphone meets the standards required by the U.S. Constitution.

In Ohio, the same two drugs were used in an execution that took nearly 30 minutes to kill convicted murderer Dennis McGuire, who appeared to gasp and convulse before dying. Oklahoma’s botched execution of convicted murderer Clayton Lockett also used midazolam.

Louisiana’s death penalty protocol now calls for a fraction of the amount of sedative used in other states.

Lethal injection lately has been the source of much controversy. Standard lethal-injection drugs have become unavailable due to manufacturers’ restrictions. In turn, states are using previously untested amounts and combinations of drugs, as well as getting them from loosely regulated compounding pharmacies.

In Louisiana, legislators have proposed alternative methods of execution. One bill considered bringing back the electric chair; that provision has since been dropped. During that discussion, state Department of Corrections Secretary James LeBlanc suggested using nitrous oxide as a form of execution, according to The New Orleans Advocate.

Suggestions to improve the lethal-injection process aren’t just being made in Louisiana. On Wednesday, a bipartisan think tank called The Constitution Project met in Washington, D.C., to discuss its new report recommending reforms for the administration of capital punishment.

The report makes 39 suggestions for improving capital punishment in every state, including taking legal measures to make sure inmates aren’t wrongfully convicted and using a single anesthetic or barbiturate that the federal government has approved for executions.

That’s the only way to carry out executions ethically rather than experiment with drug cocktails that may not work the way they’re intended to, according to death-penalty committee member  Mark White. White served as governor of Texas from 1983 to 1987 and oversaw 19 executions.

“There is an abundance of unfairness and inaccuracy in the way we go about this process,” White said at the conference.

Mark Earley, another member of The Constitution Project’s death-penalty committee, agreed.

“Without substantial revisions — not only to lethal injection, but across the board — the administration of capital punishment in America is unjust, disproportionate and very likely unconstitutional,” said Earley. He was the Republican attorney general of Virginia from 1998 to 2001. In that time, the state carried out 36 executions.

In addition to a change in lethal-injection protocol, the report calls for state transparency — a practice that Louisiana has not yet embraced, according to lethal injection expert and Fordham law professor Deborah Denno.

However, on Wednesday, one of Sepulvado’s lawyers praised Louisiana officials for agreeing to delay the lethal injection trial.

“Given the heightened concerns about secrecy and experimentation in the use of lethal injections nationally, the Department of Corrections has taken a promising step today to avoid the sorts of problematic executions in Louisiana that we have seen recently in Ohio and Oklahoma,” said Mercedes Montagnes in an email.

The same bill that would have brought back the electric chair may create even more secrecy around the state’s execution practices. It would conceal information about the source and manufacture of lethal injection drugs.

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