The status of executions in the U.S. has been in turmoil for more than a decade, since pharmaceutical companies began halting their delivery of the most widely used drugs for executions. State prison systems were left to create cocktails of the drugs they could get their hands on, often relying on one sedative in particular, midazolam, to start the execution process. The new lethal formulations have led to legal challenges, with death row prisoners arguing that the sedative used in about half a dozen states is ineffective at its primary purpose: keeping prisoners from feeling pain as they die, reports the New York Times. The first full trial on the challenges to midazolam is playing out in Oklahoma, where a prisoner vomited and shook for several minutes after he was injected with the sedative during an October execution. In the case before federal judge Stephen Friot in Oklahoma City, death-row prisoners argued that the mix of drugs that awaits them has the potential to cause so much pain as to be “constitutionally intolerable.”
The case, one of several legal challenges to execution drug protocols around the U.S., could have broad implications for the 27 states with capital punishment, several of which use midazolam. The governors of three states have issued moratoriums on the death penalty, and only 14 states where capital punishment is llegal have carried out an execution in the last decade, says the Death Penalty Information Center. The federal government executed 13 people under President Trump, the first executions in 17 years. The Biden administration has reintroduced a moratorium. The courts have repeatedly upheld the constitutionality of many methods of execution, yet states have been unable to carry many out as pressure from regulators, medical associations and groups that oppose the death penalty have made it harder to obtain the lethal drugs.