Midazolam Executions Cruel and Unusual Punishment?

Apr 29, 2015

Today, lawyers for murderers awaiting execution in Oklahoma argued in the United States Supreme Court that the use of the sedative midazolam in executions violates the Eighth Amendment ban on cruel and unusual punishment, because the drug is ineffective in inducing the deep coma needed to render lethal injections relatively painless. 

A legal victory will not save the lives of any of the death row plaintiffs, but send states who have been using midazolam in lethal injection executions scrambling to find more effective sedatives or turn to alternative execution methods.

Midazolam has been used as the first part of drug combinations in executions. Unfortunately, in some cases it has gone horrifically haywire.

The worst example was Oklahoma’s April 29, 2014 execution of Clayton Lockett. He was given midazolam -- but not, apparently, sedated by it. On the gurney, Lockett loudly moaned and groaned, gnashed his teeth, writhed violently against his restraints, and cried out.

It took 43 minutes for him to die.

Three months prior to the Lockett’s execution, midazolam failed to bring about sedation in the execution of Ohio murderer Dennis McGuire. After being given midazolam, McGuire repeatedly gasped and snorted on the gurney -- and took 26 minutes to die.

Oklahoma and Ohio are among four states that have used midazolam in lethal injection executions. The others are Arizona and Florida, whereas Alabama, Louisiana, and Virginia allow midazolam, but have never used it.

Death penalty states have turned to midazolam because sedatives previously and successfully used to induce deep sleep -- sodium thiopental and pentobarbital -- have become difficult to acquire.

Anti-death penalty groups have pressured manufacturers not to provide sodium thiopental and pentobarbital for executions. Thus, states seeking to execute started using midazolam, a drug the FDA has never approved.

Contends lawyer Mark Haddad, an attorney from one of the Oklahoma condemned plaintiffs, “The evidence that we have about [midazolam] shows that it is not capable of creating ... deep unconsciousness.”

Attorneys for the state of Oklahoma counter that the Lockett execution went awry because the intravenous tube was not correctly placed in the condemned man. They assert that, if the tubes are put in right, midazolam will adequately induce unconsciousness and a smooth legal death for illegal death dealers.


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