Md.'s halt to executions will continue; lethal-injection drug scarce

By John Wagner
Friday, February 11, 2011

Gov. Martin O'Malley's administration announced Thursday that it is withdrawing proposed regulations needed for executions to resume in Maryland, effectively extending a four-year moratorium on the death penalty.

Administration officials said the move was prompted by a U.S. company's recent decision to halt production of one of three drugs used for lethal injections in Maryland and many other states. The administration's proposed regulations specifically call for use of the drug, a powerful anesthetic known as sodium thiopental.

Rick Binetti, a spokesman for the Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services, said officials plan to submit new regulations to a legislative panel after reviewing a broad range of alternatives, including alteration of the state's use of a three-drug protocol.

"Putting a timetable on how long that will take is unrealistic at this point," Binetti said.

Lawmakers and others involved in the process suggested that a delay of six months could be possible. Maryland has five inmates on death row.

O'Malley (D), who opposes the death penalty, has been criticized by supporters of capital punishment for delays in implementing regulations called for by a 2006 court ruling.

Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. (D-Calvert), a death-penalty supporter, said he considered the latest setback "very legitimate," however.

States across the country have been scrambling since last month, when Hospira of Lake Forest, Ill., announced that it would discontinue production of sodium thiopental, which it said it never condoned for lethal injections.

Shortages of the drug have prompted some states to switch to another controversial anesthetic, while others have sought to buy doses of sodium thiopental from foreign countries. Thirteen states recently asked the U.S. Justice Department for help in finding the drug.

"It is a broad problem that's still working its way through," said Richard C. Dieter, executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center in Washington. "You either try something new, or you look overseas or somewhere else.. . . Whichever way you go, you may run into problems."

Larry Traylor, a spokesman for the Virginia Department of Corrections, said officials there are "in the same situation, and we're investigating our options."

Traylor said Virginia officials have no executions scheduled and would resolve the issue before another takes place. The state has 10 prisoners on death row.

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