Ohio switching its execution drug

Deborah Denno in The Columbus Dispatch, January 26, 2011

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Pentobarbital would be used by itself in lethal injection for first time in March
Wednesday, January 26, 2011  02:52 AM
By Alan Johnson

For the second time in 15 months, Ohio will execute a prisoner with a drug never before used alone to kill a human being.

The Department of Rehabilitation and Correction said yesterday that it will switch to pentobarbital, a fast-acting barbiturate, from sodium thiopental for lethal-injection executions, beginning with Johnnie Baston of Lucas County, on March 10.

Prisons officials said the change was necessary because of a national shortage of sodium thiopental, the single drug Ohio used for the past nine executions, beginning with Kenneth Biros on Dec. 8, 2009. Before that, the state used a three-drug combination.

Hospira Inc., a Lake Forest, Ill., pharmaceutical company, said last week that it will not resume manufacturing sodium thiopental, largely because of complaints about its use in executions. The company previously had said it would start making the drug again in the first quarter of this year, likely in a plant in Italy.

Prisons spokesman Carlo LoParo said pentobarbital has been used for executions in Oklahoma as part of a three-drug combination. He said it induces a coma and stops the respiratory system.

"We have thoroughly researched the effect of the drug in Oklahoma executions," he said.

LoParo said the drug is not the same as one used by veterinarians to euthanize animals.

Executioners will use the last of the old drug for the scheduled Feb. 17 execution of triple-murderer Frank Spisak of Cuyahoga County.

The state, through Ohio Attorney General Mike DeWine's office, communicated the drug switch in a motion filed yesterday with U.S. District Court Judge Gregory Frost, who is considering a lawsuit filed by several inmates challenging the state's lethal-injection procedures.

The announcement was greeted with skepticism by Ohio Public Defender Tim Young, whose office represents Baston.

"I find it disconcerting that you have prominent people like Ohio Supreme Court Justice (Paul) Pfeifer and former prisons director Terry Collins who have called repeatedly for a review of the death penalty. ... Instead of listening to those voices, we are charging ahead with an untested drug, an untested protocol as part of the machinery of death."

Fordham University Law Professor Deborah W. Denno, a death-penalty and lethal-injection expert, said Ohio's change is "predictable but disturbing. ... It is regrettable that Ohio is blindly following in Oklahoma's muddy footsteps. Further problems are inevitable."

Dr. Jonathan Groner, a Columbus pediatric surgeon and death-penalty opponent, said pentobarbital is an anti-convulsant drug often used to control seizures and in dealing with traumatic brain injuries. He said it has a "high rate of reactive airway problems, meaning the person has the possibility of suffocating to death."

Despite the criticisms, Richard Dieter of the Death Penalty Information Center in Washington, D.C., said the switch to pentobarbital "is the way states are going to go." However, he predicted that legal challenges are inevitable.

The large volume of research done on the version of the drug used in euthanizing animals might be positive, Dieter said.

"That may have led to more humane methods," he said. "This may be the better way to go."

Ohio's backup execution procedure, involving large doses of two high-potency painkillers - hydromorphone, known by the brand name Dilaudid, and midazolam, injected directly into the inmate's muscles - was not changed. The backup has never been used here.