Judge to mull whether suit over death penalty can continue

Posted at 4:42 AM, Jun 29, 2016
and last updated 2016-06-29 07:42:16-04

A judge presiding over a lawsuit that protests the way Arizona carries out executions is scheduled to hear arguments Wednesday over whether death-row prisoners can press forward with their legal challenge now that the state says it doesn't have lethal-injection drugs available for executions.

U.S. District Judge Neil Wake also is expected to question whether a temporary ban on executions in Arizona should remain in place if he decides there are no legal claims left to litigate in the case. The judge had previously barred executions in the state until the lawsuit is resolved.

Several of the lawsuit's claims have been dismissed, but lawyers for the condemned inmates want to press forward with allegations that the state has abused its discretion in the methods and amounts of the drugs used in past executions.

The state revealed last week that it had eliminated its use of the sedative midazolam as one of its lethal-injection drugs. Lawyers for Arizona say the state can't currently carry out executions because it has no access to supplies of pentobarbital and sodium thiopental.

The state argues the lawsuit is moot now that midazolam is off the table. They say the judge won't have jurisdiction to continue his temporary ban on executions if he finds there are no other issues to litigate.

Attorneys representing the condemned prisoners say they should be allowed to keep pressing their claims that Arizona Department of Corrections Director Charles Ryan has abused his discretion in carrying out executions.

Arizona's last execution occurred in July 2014, when convicted killer Joseph Rudolph Wood was given 15 doses of midazolam and a painkiller and took nearly two hours to die. His attorney says the execution was botched.

Similar challenges to the death penalty are playing out in other parts of the country that seek more transparency about where states get their execution drugs.

States are struggling to obtain execution drugs because European pharmaceutical companies began blocking the use of their products for lethal injections.

Death penalty states refuse to disclose the sources of their drugs, though the sources are widely believed to be compounding pharmacies -- organizations that make drugs tailored to the needs of a specific client. Those pharmacies do not face the same approval process or testing standards of larger pharmaceutical companies.