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Law

US court backs Oklahoma to use sedative in executions

Death row prisoners argued that the use of midazolam in executions breaks the US constitution, but the US Supreme Court ruled in Oklahoma’s favour.

The US Supreme Court has ruled that Oklahoma State can continue to use the sedative midazolam as part of the drug cocktail administered in executions. Dissenting judge, Sonia Sotomayor (pictured), launched an attack against the use of lethal injection

Source: Collection of the Supreme Court of the United States / Steve Petteway

Judge Sonia Sotomayor has attacked the use of lethal injection, saying the court’s decision exposed the death row inmates to “what may well be the chemical equivalent of being burned at the stake”

The US Supreme Court has ruled by five to four that Oklahoma State can continue to use the controversial sedative midazolam as part of a three-drug cocktail administered in executions.

The judges rejected the case brought by four inmates on death row who argued that the use of the drug broke the US constitution, which prohibits cruel and unusual punishments.

The men — one of whom was executed only days before the court agreed to hear the case in January 2015 — had argued that the amendment was breached because midazolam was unreliable for inducing a coma.

The court ruled that the men had failed to prove that midazolam was an ineffective way of preventing agonising pain.

However, dissenting judge Sonia Sotomayor took the opportunity to launch a scathing attack against the use of lethal injection in the written judgement released on 29 June 2015.

She said the court’s decision exposed the death row inmates to “what may well be the chemical equivalent of being burned at the stake”.

“There is evidence to suggest that the firing squad is significantly more reliable than other methods [of capital punishment], including lethal injection using the various combinations of drugs thus far developed,” she added.

Sotomayor said the use of lethal injection represents just the latest iteration of the centuries-long search for “neat and non-disfiguring homicidal methods”.

Oklahoma decided to include midazolam in its protocol for lethal injection replacing barbiturates – specifically sodium thiopental and later pentobartital – which drug companies had refused to supply following successful campaigns by the anti-capital punishment lobby.

But when it used the new three-drug cocktail for the first time in April 2014 on death row prisoner Clayton Lockett, the execution had to be stopped when the injection appeared not to work and he regained consciousness. Lockett eventually died 43 minutes after being given the first drug. In Oklahoma, the three-drug cocktail used in executions includes a paralytic agent to inhibit all muscular-skeletal movements and potassium chloride to induce cardiac arrest. 

Citation: The Pharmaceutical Journal DOI: 10.1211/PJ.2015.20068896

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