Ohio executes inmate using new, single-drug method for death penalty

Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, March 11, 2011; 1:21 AM

Ohio executed an inmate Thursday with a single drug previously used to euthanize animals, the first execution of its kind in the United States and a potentially pivotal development in the nation's emotional battle over capital punishment.

Johnnie Baston, 37, was pronounced dead at 10:30 a.m. at the Southern Ohio Correctional Facility in Lucasville after receiving an infusion of the powerful barbituate pentobarbital, officials said. Baston was sentenced to death for the 1994 killing of Chong Mah, 53, a Toledo store owner.

Capital punishment in the United States was thrown into disarray in January when the only U.S. company that makes sodium thiopental, which Ohio and other states had long used with two other drugs for lethal injection, announced that it would no longer produce the drug.

The decision forced states to delay executions and scramble for alternatives. Opponents and supporters of the death penalty predicted Thursday that other states would follow Ohio and adopt the new one-drug approach, alleviating delays in executions in the short-term but potentially leading to legal challenges that could further mire the system in the long term.

"This might very well be the wave of the future in capital punishment in the United States," said Richard Dieter of the Death Penalty Information Center.

Death penalty supporters welcomed the development. It will allow executions in Ohio and other states that adopt the new protocol to proceed with less of a threat of drug shortages and other complications. It will also neutralize charges that inmates may be paralyzed but conscious and in pain while being executed with the traditional three-drug method.

"This is a positive development. Justice is overdue in these cases," said Kent Scheidegger, legal director for the Criminal Justice Legal Foundation in Sacramento. "There are some murderers for whom anything less than death is an inadequate punishment."

But opponents of the death penalty condemned the new protocol, saying too little is known about how pentobarbital works for this purpose in people.

"Ohio is gambling blindly in its rush to execute," said Deborah W. Denno, a professor of law at Fordham University Law School in New York. "There is no reason why Ohio cannot take the time to devise a constitutionally acceptable execution procedure in the way so many experts have recommended."

The Danish company that distributes pentobarbital in the United States said it had no control over how its products are used but criticized Ohio's decision.

"It's against everything we stand for," said Mads Kronborg, a spokesman for H. Lundbeck of Copenhagen. Kronborg said the company had protested to state officials considering using the drug for executions. "We invent and develop medicine with the aim of alleviating people's burden. This is the direct opposite of that."

Thirty-four states, including Virginia and Maryland, allow capital punishment. All use lethal injection, and, until recently, most had used a three-drug cocktail: sodium thiopental to render the condemned unconscious, pancuronium bromide to paralyze the prisoner and potassium chloride to stop the heart.

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