Death Penalty
11:06 am
Fri August 17, 2012

Missouri Executions On Hold For Pending Inmate Lawsuit

Missouri won’t be executing any prisoners until a Propofol-related complaint from 21 condemned inmates is settled in Federal Court, according to a ruling issued Tuesday by the Missouri Supreme Court.

The inmates who filed the complaint claim that the state’s new lethal injection drug of choice, which first made headlines as the chemical that caused Michael Jackson’s 2009 death, could cause pain that amounts to unconstitutional cruelty. The ruling states that it would be “premature” to set execution dates for six of the men on Death Row while the suit is still pending in Federal Court. 

The Missouri Department of Corrections announced in May that it would switch from using the typical three-drug lethal injection cocktail to Propofol, an anesthetic. The single drug would be given to the condemned after a non-lethal dose of another anesthetic, lidocaine.  Because Propofol has never been tested as a lethal injection drug, the complaint argues that it could cause suffering that violates the Constitution’s ban on cruel and unusual punishment.

State Attorney General Chris Koster argued in May that the Supreme Court should proceed with setting execution dates for the six inmates, who had run out of appeals, because there was “no legal impediment.” Koster was disappointed with Tuesday’s ruling, saying via statement that the Court “had the option of setting execution dates, which would have effectively imposed deadlines on lower court challenges to the execution protocol.”

Missouri is so far the only death-penalty state to announce a plan to use Propofol, although five other states have switched from the three-drug mix to another single drug: pentobarbital, a short-acting barbiturate. Switching from the long-used cocktail was prompted when the maker of sodium thiopental no longer wanted the drug to be available for use in lethal injections.

Attorneys for two of the inmates whose execution date-settings were postponed by the ruling wrote in a filing to the Supreme Court that Propofol has been known to cause extreme pain in patients even in normal doses. Missouri plans to use up to 15 times the normal dose in executions.

In 2006, a federal judge stopped executions in Missouri, the Courthouse News Service reports, after “the supervising surgeon acknowledged that he was dyslexic and sometimes confused numbers and did not follow written procedures.” That same surgeon had also been sued more than 20 times for malpractice and had lied in court. Executions were resumed in 2009, after prison officials determined that an anesthesiologist would supervise.

Since 1976, Missouri has executed 68 prisoners, all via lethal injection.