A Disturbing Ruling

A Sixth Circuit appeals court panel ruled this month that Ohio’s three-drug execution protocol does not violate the Eighth Amendment prohibition against cruel and unusual punishments. The panel’s decision is at odds with federal magistrate Judge Merz’s conclusion earlier this year that the state’s drug combination will almost certainly cause “severe pain and needless suffering.” It was Merz’s conclusion that led Governor DeWine to halt executions in Ohio.

In contrast to Merz’s 148-page analysis of expert opinions, the federal appeals court’s ruling is expressed in a brief 7 pages.

It focuses on midazolam, the first of the three lethal injection drugs, which Merz condemns because it has no analgesic effect, and causes the suffocating effects of pulmonary edema. The three appeals court judges dismiss both these findings.

The judges also remind us that since a US Supreme Court ruling earlier this year, death by slow suffocation is now deemed constitutional. They explain that the Eighth Amendment now only prohibits forms of punishment that seek to intensify an inmate’s death by “superadd[ing]” feelings of “terror, pain, or disgrace.”

David Stebbins, a federal public defender involved in the Ohio execution protocol case, reacted strongly, saying the opinion “does not reflect the known facts about how the three-drug protocol acts upon the human body.” His stance was echoed by Robert Dunham, executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center, who commented that the Sixth Circuit court does not seem to want to “admit the reality of what Ohio’s protocol does”.

A spokesman for Governor DeWine stated that further litigation is likely to follow the appeals court’s judgment; and in any case concerns about Ohio’s supply of lethal injection drugs remain. Governor DeWine himself has in the past avoided expressing support for the death penalty.

Death penalty expert Doug Berman believes it unlikely that further appeals will be heard in full; and that Governor DeWine will probably play a key role in deciding “whether  and when” executions are resumed. We hope the Governor responds with “No” and “Never”. It is high time to bring this barbaric practice to an end.

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