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The court said last week that it would consider the constitutionality of using midazolam. (Photo: AP)

As Court Stays Executions, Rights Group Says 'End the Death Penalty'

Pending results of legal challenge to lethal injection cocktail in Oklahoma, Supreme Court stays executions for three men

Jon Queally

Pending the outcome of a challenge to the drug cocktail being used by the state of Oklahoma to carry out death sentences, the U.S. Supreme Court on Wednesday issued stays of execution for three men, including one slated to be killed Thursday.

"Rather than continuing a practice that has been abandoned in all but a few counties—and risking more botched executions—Oklahoma should join the national trend and end the death penalty.” —Steven W. Hawkins, Amnesty International

As Common Dreams reported earlier this week, the challenge in Oklahoma centers around the inclusion of a drug called midazolam in the lethal injection cocktail now being used in the state's executions. After a series of botched executions—evidenced by prolonged episodes in which those injected writhed in pain—a number of death row inmates initiated a challenge to the state's use of the drug combination saying it amounted to "cruel and unusual punishment" and an affront to protections offered by the Constitution's Eighth Amendment.

In a single sentence order, the nation's highest court announced, "it is hereby ordered that petitioners' executions using midazolam are stayed pending final disposition of this case."

According to the Associated Press:

Both the state and lawyers for three inmates had asked the court to postpone the executions of Richard Glossip, who had been scheduled to die Thursday night, and two others who were scheduled for lethal injection in the coming weeks.

Glossip and three other inmates challenged Oklahoma's lethal injection procedures last year, saying the sedative midazolam might not sufficiently mask pain as their hearts and lungs shut down. The justices agreed to take up their case, but not until after one of the inmates was executed two weeks ago.

On Wednesday, the justices said Oklahoma could not execute inmates using midazolam while the case is pending. The case will be argued before the court in April and decided by late June.

Dale Baich, an attorney representing the inmates, said, "We welcome today’s ruling staying executions in Oklahoma until the court can address serious questions about the state’s risky lethal injection protocol."

"Midazolam is an inappropriate drug to use in executions," he added.

Death penalty opponents also welcomed the news.

Speaking on behalf of Amnesty International USA, the group's executive director Steven W. Hawkins said the court was right to put a hold on the executions in Oklahoma, but also went further as he put into question the entire death penalty system in the United States.

"The recent botched executions in Oklahoma and other states show the US’s capital punishment system is broken beyond repair," Hawkins said. "The death penalty must be replaced with a system that comports with our sense of decency and the US’s obligations under international law. Rather than continuing a practice that has been abandoned in all but a few counties—and risking more botched executions—Oklahoma should join the national trend and end the death penalty.”

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