MONTGOMERY — Alabama this week adopted a new drug protocol for executions by lethal injection and began seeking execution dates for nine inmates on death row.
Those inmates saw their execution dates indefinitely postponed earlier this year, when state officials ran out of drugs used in executions.
Several states have faced shortages of those drugs in recent years, largely because drug manufacturers in Europe — where there's substantial opposition to capital punishment — have refused to sell drugs to states for use in executions. In response to the shortage, several states have sought out new combinations of lethal injection drugs.
Some death-row inmates have filed suits arguing that the use of those experimental drug combinations could lead to pain during executions, violating the constitutional ban on cruel and unusual punishment.
Tommy Arthur is one of those inmates. Arthur, sentenced to death for the murder-for-hire of a Muscle Shoals man in the 1980s, was originally scheduled for lethal injection in 2012. He filed suit on the grounds that the state had only recently switched to a new lethal injection drug, pentobarbital. Two other Alabama inmates have similar suits pending.
State officials acknowledged in March that Alabama no longer had a supply of pentobarbital — leaving Alabama without the drugs it needed to carry out executions.
In motions filed Thursday with the Alabama Supreme Court, state officials say they now have a new drug protocol for executions. Under the protocol, adopted Wednesday, inmates would be injected with midazolam hydrochloride, an anesthetic; rocuronium bromide to relax the muscles; and potassium chloride to induce cardiac arrest.
The drug combination is "virtually identical to Florida's newly-revised protocol which has been ruled constitutional," according to the state's motion.
The protocol has been used for seven executions in Florida, the motion states.
Midazolam, the first drug in the protocol, has been used in botched executions in other states this year. An Ohio execution in January took 25 minutes, with the inmate gasping for breath, according to accounts in the press. In May, an Oklahoma inmate died 43 minutes after first being lethally injected. Both executions used midazolam.
Florida’s recent executions haven’t presented the same problems, said Richard Dieter, director of the Death Penalty Information Center, a nonprofit group which studies the death penalty.
Still, Dieter said, problems might be harder to spot under Florida’s drug protocol because the second drug in the sequence paralyzes the inmate.
“It’s hard to tell when a paralytic is the second drug,” Dieter said. “They could be conscious or experiencing pain, but they can’t show that.”
The state filed nine motions seeking execution dates for Arthur as well as inmates David Lee Roberts, Anthony Boyd, Christopher Eugene Brooks, Demetrius Frazier, Gregory Hunt, William Ernest Kuenzel, Robin Dee Myers and Christopher Lee Price.
The motion in Arthur's case was the first to come to light Friday morning. The Star's attempts to reach Arthur's lawyer, Suhana Han, were not immediately successful Friday morning.
Jennifer Ardis, a spokeswoman for Gov. Robert Bentley, said the state was ready to carry out the executions.
"Obviously, the decision to execute an inmate is a serious one, and the governor supports the legal process," Ardis said. "We have a new protocol and the Department of Corrections is ready to carry out an execution order."
One Alabama death penalty opponent said she didn’t understand the drive to resume executions.
“I’m disgusted,” said Esther Brown, an activist for Project Hope for Abolition of the Death Penalty. “I’m disgusted with our compulsion, our need, to kill. I just don’t understand it.”
The state hasn’t executed an inmate since July 2013, when Andrew Reid Lackey died by lethal injection for the 2005 murder of an Athens man.