This week, the Arizona Department of Corrections called a halt to executions that use the controversial sedative midazolam. The drug is the first in a three-part cocktail, meant to sedate the prisoner before they are given a paralyzing drug and then an injection that stops the heart. The efficacy of the sedative has long been in question.
On December 8 in Alabama, a man named Ron Smith was executed against the advisement of the jury, by order of his judge in the case. (Alabama is the only state that allows a judge to circumvent a jury’s recommendation for life in jail over the death penalty.) During his execution, Smith cough and twitched for thirteen minutes, leading many to believe that the midazolam had failed to sedate him properly before the painful heart-stopping drug was administered. Before his death, Smith and other Alabama death rows inmates sued the state over the use of midazolam, claiming that the state’s three-drug execution process constituted cruel and unusual punishment. They lost.
Arizona has also been the site of botched executions with midazolam. BuzzFeed News reports that in 2014 an inmate took two hours to die, during which he gasped and heaved on the table:
After the Wood execution, the state hired a private company comprised of former corrections officials to assess what went wrong and what should be changed. The company did a cursory comparison of different execution protocols and came to no determination about what actually went wrong.
The report found that the drugs “should be an effective option,” and Arizona kept midazolam as an option to use in the future.
The state hasn’t performed an execution since, and there have been multiple long and expensive lawsuits from inmates arguing against the use of midazolam. In a joint stipulation filed on Monday, the Department of Corrections stated, “ADC will never again use midazolam, or any other benzodiazepine, as part of a drug protocol in a lethal injection execution.”
Many pharmaceutical makers are reluctant to assist death penalty states in finding effective drugs for their purpose. Pfizer blocked the use of their products for lethal injection in May of 2016. Having agreed not to use midazolam, the Arizona department of corrections may have left themselves without options for executions, although it hasn’t stopped them from trying to obtain others. For now, though, Arizona will have to hold off on executions until it can find a more palatable way to administer death to its citizens.