Lawyers for a convicted child-killer and the state Department of Corrections were supposed to be in federal court Monday to schedule a trial on the constitutionality of Louisiana’s method of executing prisoners.
Instead, the trial and Christopher Sepulvado’s execution have been delayed at least seven months as Louisiana figures out the best way to carry out the death penalty.
By the time of the next hearing, Louisiana’s execution drugs will have expired. And state law spelling out how executions are carried out — and whether such details are kept secret — could change, too.
Sepulvado, who was convicted of beating his stepson with a screwdriver and then submerging his body in scalding water, has won several stays of execution in the past two years. He argues that the state’s method of lethal injection violates his constitutional protection against cruel and unusual punishment.
As part of that lawsuit, Sepulvado has sought to learn the exact procedure Louisiana will use to put him to death. The state has fought such disclosures in that lawsuit and in response to public-records requests.
The purpose of today’s hearing was to set a trial date regarding the constitutionality of Louisiana’s lethal injection method. Last week, lawyers for the state asked to delay everything in the case until June 25; a judge agreed. The state will not carry out any executions in the meantime.
In a court filing to explain why they wanted to delay the proceedings, lawyers for the Department of Corrections wrote that it’s a waste of time to move on with the case because “the facts and issues that are involved in this proceeding continue to be in a fluid state.”
They continued: “It is believed that, by June 2015, the facts and issues that are ultimately to be litigated will become more settled, and the parties will then be in a better position to proceed forward with the litigation.”
A spokeswoman for the Louisiana Department of Public Safety and corrections wouldn’t elaborate on what could change between now and June.
One thing that could change is state law outlining how prisoners are killed, and whether the public knows the precise method. The 2015 legislative session will end two weeks before the new status conference.
Like other states, Louisiana’s execution procedure has changed as lethal injection drugs become scarce or expire amidst national shortages. The lack of inventory has forced corrections officials around the country to adopt what death penalty opponents call “experimental” practices that in some cases have resulted in drawn-out executions.
Last spring, Rep. Joseph P. Lopinto III, R-Metairie, introduced a bill that would have reinstated electrocution in Louisiana. Since 1991, lethal injection has been the only legal form of execution in the state.
At the request of Department of Corrections Secretary Jimmy LeBlanc, Lopinto changed direction, dropping electrocution and adding language to make secret many details about executions. The bill would have kept confidential the name, address and other identifying information “of any person or entity that manufactures, compounds, prescribes, dispenses, supplies or administers” execution drugs. It also would have allowed the state to buy drugs from out-of-state suppliers not licensed in Louisiana.
Other states, including Arizona, Georgia, Missouri and Oklahoma, have passed secrecy laws after botched and unusually long executions.
In April, an Oklahoma prisoner, supposedly rendered unconscious, tried to rise from the gurney after his injections began. Oklahoma’s procedure, like Louisiana’s, called for midazolam, a sedative. The episode prompted Louisiana officials to say they would reconsider that method.
Midazolam has been used in three unorthodox executions this year alone. It’s used as an anesthetic in executions, but it can cause breathing problems and cardiac arrest.
Lopinto’s bill sailed through a Senate committee and the House, but he dropped it without explanation.
The Lens wasn’t able to reach him to see if he would offer a similar bill next year.
Although lethal injection is used by most states with the death penalty, other methods are allowed in some states. Electrocution is the most common, but a few states allow firing squads and hanging, according to the American Civil Liberties Union.
The other complication of the delayed trial is the expiration date of the state’s lethal injection drugs. Its supply of hydromorphone will expire in April and midazolam in January.
Mercedes Montagnes, a lawyer for Sepulvado, said she doesn’t know if the state is trying to get more hydromorphone and midazolam or if it will come up with a new execution method before the trial.
Regardless, the delay buys her client more time before he faces another death warrant.
“All we know is that the state has requested an additional amount of time to nail down its protocol for execution,” Montagnes said via email. “We have no objection to this request.”