Ohio has been fumbling
its lethal injection protocol for years — dating back most notably to a failed execution in 2009
— and a series of events are about to collide in a most unpredictable manner.
Ronald Phillips was sentenced to death for the 1993 rape and murder of his girlfriend's 3-year-old daughter. He is scheduled to die on Jan. 12, the first state execution since the widely criticized lethal injection
of Dennis McGuire. Last week, Phillips once again asked the state to delay the execution. He's raising questions about the state's three-drug "cocktail," and he's not alone in his legal concerns.
Casting Phillips' personal history to the side for a moment — and recognizing how often the public conflates inmates' criminal cases with the ramifications of subsequent civil litigation — it's worth a moment or two to analyze the circuitous path Ohio has taken in its capital punishment policies. Phillips' latest court filing, two months out from his scheduled death, lends an important opportunity.
For years, Ohio used a blend of three drugs to execute death row inmates, and, for years, reports showed that the drug combination frequently caused painful, prolonged deaths. The Eighth Amendment
was cited in critiques, and Ohio Revised Code mandates that execution protocol "quickly and painlessly cause death."
In 2009, executioners spent two hours prodding and stabbing Romell Broom with needles. They could not find a vein, and the execution was called off. ("I tried to assist them by helping to tie my own arm," Broom later recounted.) The event prompted some governmental soul-searching, and the state decided to abandon its three-drug mixture in favor of a single barbiturate, like pentobarbital or sodium thiopental. The state insisted that complete secrecy was needed to obtain those drugs and that the public was to be shut out of all information on the matter of lethal injection protocol. State lawmakers agreed.
In 2014 — after failing to procure those drugs, and instead using the sedative midazolam in another questionable combination — the state executed Dennis McGuire. He gasped and snorted audibly and took more than 15 minutes to die once the drugs were injected, once again placing scrutiny on how Ohio was carrying out its executions.
Last month, the state surprisingly announced a return to a three-drug mixture — this time including midazolam, along with rocuronium bromide, a paralytic drug, and potassium chloride, which stops the heart — just in time for its first execution in three years: Ronald Phillips.
"Having thus pursued a lengthy, multi-front campaign for compelled secrecy premised on their need to acquire pentobarbital and/or sodium thiopental, [state leaders] have now made clear that they didn’t mean anything they said," Phillips asserts in his latest request
to delay his death. He alleges that the known properties of midazolam and the state's history make it so that executions cannot be carried out in a constitutional manner. "There are no safeguards—training, IVs, etc.—that can cure this fundamental problem."
A jury trial has been requested on certain claims in Phillips' latest complaint.
"With this new execution procedure, Ohio is moving backward toward a procedure that poses greatly increased risks of pain and suffering," Allen Bohnert of the Federal Public Defender's Office said last month.