Ohio plans to resume executions next year with a new three-drug combination after a three-year hiatus, state officials said Monday.
Assistant State Attorney General Thomas Madden told a federal judge at a status conference that the state would file details of a "protocol change" for executions by week's end, said Dan Tierney, spokesman for the attorney general's office. The federal public defender's office, however, indicated it will quickly challenge the plan.
Ohio is one about a dozen states where executions have been stalled amid difficulties obtaining dependable drugs.
Ohio's last execution took place in January 2014 when Dennis McGuire was put to death for the murder of a pregnant woman in 1993. Corrections officials employed a two-drug combination of the sedative midazolam and painkiller hydromorphone. The process took 26 minutes, and witnesses said McGuire seized and gasped for 15 minutes.
Ohio Gov. John Kasich later delayed all scheduled executions until January 2017, when Ronald Phillips is scheduled to die for the rape and murder of his girlfriend's daughter.
McGuire's family filed suit against the state and a drug company, claiming McGuire was a victim of cruel and unusual punishment when he appeared to "writhe in pain" during the ordeal. Allen Bohnert, assistant federal public defender, told USA TODAY he was disappointed that midazolam is one of the three drugs included in Ohio's proposed new protocol. The other drugs are a paralytic, rocuronium bromide, and the drug that actually stops the heart, potassium chloride.
The Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction used a similar combination from 1999 to 2009, and the U.S. Supreme Court has upheld its use, department spokeswoman JoEllen Smith said. Bohnert was unmoved.
"Medical experts have said that using midazolam will not reduce the substantial risk that Ohio will subject an inmate to an unconstitutional, agonizing execution," Bohnert said. "The last time Ohio ignored the experts, it botched McGuire’s execution and suffocated him to death."
Lethal injection, the preferred execution method in the United States for decades, has become less viable as the most efficient drugs have become unavailable. Supplies of thiopental, one of the crucial drugs, ran out in 2010 when its U.S. manufacturer halted production for use in executions and foreign supplies were not approved for import by the FDA.
In December 2014, Ohio Gov. John Kasich signed into law a bill aimed at encouraging production of the drugs by providing 20-year confidentiality for pharmacies that prepared lethal formulations. Bohnert dismisses the law as a state effort to free itself "from accountability for unlawful and unsafe practices."
Utah passed a law last year allowing use of a firing squad if lethal injection drugs aren't available. Ohio lawmakers discussed firing squads to carry out death sentences, a move Kasich rejected.