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Ohio delays all executions scheduled for 2015

Ohio said Friday it would postpone all six executions scheduled for this year, pushing them into 2016 to allow the state to obtain new lethal injection drugs.

The shift comes three weeks after Ohio authorities announced that the state would change the drugs it uses for lethal injections and no longer use a drug that had cropped up in multiple mishandled executions last year — the same drug that is at the center of a case the Supreme Court recently said it would hear involving lethal injection.

When Ohio’s Department of Rehabilitation and Correction announced earlier this month that it would no longer use the drugs midazolam and hydromorphone for lethal injections, officials said the shift would delay one execution scheduled for February and possibly others. The reason offered is that it would take time for the state to obtain thiopental sodium and pentobarbital, the two drugs that the state says it will use going forward.

The department announced Friday that seven executions in total — six scheduled for 2015 and one scheduled for January 2016 — would be delayed to allow officials “adequate time to secure a supply of the new execution drugs.” It also said the delay would give them time to adopt and prepare the new execution protocol.

An ongoing shortage of lethal injection drugs has caused states like Ohio to scramble to obtain drugs, prompting some states to turn to new, untested drug combinations. This shortage is why Ohio turned to the now-discarded pairing of midazolam and hydromorphone in the first place. Ohio’s announcement this month of its new execution protocol occurred about a year after it used these two drugs in an execution that lasted nearly 25 minutes and prompted a lawsuit.

Since that execution, midazolam has cropped up in two high-profile executions that went awry. One execution, in Oklahoma, lasted for nearly 43 minutes as the inmate kicked and grimaced; the other, in Arizona, lasted for almost two hours as the inmate gasped and snorted.

The Supreme Court announced last week that it would consider Oklahoma’s lethal injection drug protocol, which uses midazolam and matches the combination used by Florida since 2013. In response to the botched execution in Oklahoma last year, the state altered its execution protocol to keep midazolam but ramp up the dosage.

Oklahoma has carried out one lethal injection with its new protocol, using the combination to execute Charles Warner, who was convicted of raping and murdering an 11-month old. The court’s four liberal justices said they would have stayed the execution and cited the drugs involved; Justice Sonioa Sotomayor, in her dissent, questioned a lower court’s thinking that midazolam would “work as intended…given recent experience with the use of this drug.” (It takes four justices to accept a case but five to issue a stay.)

The Supreme Court last considered lethal injection in 2008, but the drug combination it discussed has largely disappeared due to the drug shortage. This week, the justices agreed to stay three scheduled executions in Oklahoma, including one that had been set for this week, until after the court rules on the issue.

The delays announced Friday mean Ohio, which is among the states with the most executions in the modern era, will go at least two years without any executions.

The next scheduled execution — that of Ronald R. Phillips, sentenced to death for raping and killing his girlfriend’s 3-year-old daughter — has been pushed back from Feb. 11 to Jan. 21, 2016. Five other executions scheduled for this year have been delayed to 2016, while one execution scheduled for January 2016 has been pushed back to November of next year. As a result, Ohio now has 11 executions scheduled for next year.