Ohio Drops Problematic Execution Drug

by | January 9, 2015

By Alan Johnson

Ohio will switch its lethal injection protocol, adding thiopental sodium, a drug used previously, and dropping the two-drug regimen of midazolam and hydromorphone that caused problems in the last execution a year ago.

The Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction said today until it secures supplies of pentobarbital, a drug already permitted, or thiopental sodium, the Feb. 11 execution of Ronald Phillips, and possibly others, will be postponed. The state used thiopental sodium from 1999 until 2011.

Gov. John Kasich will likely have to postpone the executions of Phillips, 41, of Summit County, and Raymond Tibbetts, 57, of Hamilton County, scheduled for March 12. The execution of Gregory Lott, 53, of Cuyahoga County, is scheduled May 14.

The first two executions would take place before House Bill 663, a new lethal injection law passed by the legislature and signed by the governor, takes effect in late March. The law allows the state to buy drugs from small compounding pharmacies, which mix batches of drugs to customer specifications. It also permits the state to keep secret the identities of drug suppliers because of security concerns.

Ohio and other states have been forced to search for new supplies of drugs because major drug manufacturers, many of which are located in Europe, refuse to sell drugs for use in executions. That is reason for the switch to compounding pharmacies.

The state had to file legal paperwork detailing the new drug protocol with U.S. District Judge Gregory Frost 30 days in advance of the next scheduled execution on Feb. 11. Frost has presided over most of the recent contested lethal injection cases filed on behalf of Ohio Death Row prisoners.

The change means that Dennis McGuire 53, will be the one and only person in Ohio to be put to death using the combination of midazolam and hyrdomorphone. During his Jan. 16, 2014, execution, McGuire choked, coughed, gasped and clenched his fists for about 20 minutes prior to succumbing to the drug mixture. His son and daughter, who watched their father's troubled execution, subsequently sued the state, alleging his death was cruel and unusual punishment, a violation of the U.S. Constitution.

McGuire was executed for the 1989 rape and murder of 22-year-old Joy Stewart of West Alexandria, Ohio, who pregnant at her death.

The controversy over McGuire's executions resulted in the postponement of all remaining executions in Ohio last year.

It will be the fifth time in 2 1/2 years that Phillips has had a new execution date. Dates in September and July last year, and November 2013 were delayed either by Kasich's clemency actions or reprieves from Frost. Phillips was given a reprieve by Kasich to explore his desire to have transplant surgery to provide a kidney to his ailing mother, but the surgery never took place.

Phillips' attorneys argued in a new motion filed last year in Summit County Common Pleas Court that his multiple execution dates, and ensuing delays, amount to illegal "double jeopardy" and cruel and unusual punishment, forbidden by the U.S. Constitution.

In addition, a lawsuit was filed late last year on behalf of Phillips, Tibbetts and two other inmates challenging the secrecy shrouding the revised execution process. Frost will also hear that lawsuit which claims that state officials, through the new law, are trying to stifle public debate about capital punishment by "seeking to punish, disarm, suppress and silence" opposition.

Phillips was convicted and sentenced to death for the 1993 beating, rape and murder of 3-year-old Sheila Marie Evans, the daughter of his girlfriend at the time.

Tibbetts received the death penalty for murdering Judith Sue Crawford and Fred Hicks in the Over-the-Rhine section of Cincinnati in 1997.

(c)2015 The Columbus Dispatch (Columbus, Ohio)