Missouri's use of controversial drug looms over execution

Kansas City, Mo. — Update, Sept. 10: The courts and Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon refused to halt the execution of 40-year-old Earl Ringo Jr. The Missouri Department of Corrections announced that Ringo was executed by lethal injection at 12:22 a.m. Wednesday.

Earlier story:

Convicted murderer Earl Ringo Jr. is scheduled for execution by lethal injection by the state of Missouri at 12:01 a.m. Wednesday, but his lawyer wants the execution stopped in fear that Ringo will be injected with midazolam, a drug that has been implicated in botched executions in three other states.

Missouri Department of Corrections director George Lombardi is on record as saying the state does not use midazolam as part of its lethal injections, but an investigation by St. Louis Public Radio reported last week that Missouri did use midazolam in the nine executions the state has carried out since November.

According to Kay Parish, the attorney for Ringo, the drug may have been used without the knowledge or consent of the prisoners. St. Louis Public Radio also reported that midazolam was used in doses much higher than recommended when used as a normal sedative.

"Missouri is sitting here, saying, 'Well, we haven't had any botched executions.' The truth is, we don't know," Parish said. "We don't know, because when they're administering the first drug intravenously, the curtains are closed. And that's the same drug that has been a part of all the problems in Ohio, and Oklahoma, and Arizona."

Parish filed a petition Tuesday before the Eighth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, hoping to halt the execution.

Media reports of executions in Oklahoma, Ohio and Arizona this year said that those executed suffered prolonged gasping. All three executions took longer than average. The inmate in Oklahoma eventually died of an apparent heart attack.

Dr. Karen Sibert, a medical expert interviewed by St. Louis Public Radio, said a dosage of midazolam in such a heavy amount as recorded in Missouri executions could result in a person being "difficult to arouse."

"You would tend to be so deeply asleep that your airway might obstruct," Sibert said.

Parish filed pleas include an affidavit from Dr. Mark Heath, an anesthesiologist. Heath said that such a high dose of midazolam would render the prisoner incompetent to be executed, which Parish said would be illegal under the Eighth Amendment.

Because of this, Ringo's attorneys raised an Eighth Amendment claim -- one of four -- in the petition of Habeas Corpus filed Sept. 4.

According to Parish, Heath also said that midazolam administered at such high levels can affect the person's ability to express or respond to pain, even though they might be feeling it.

Parish objected to the use of midazolam behind closed curtains. "I have very strong suspicions that if the curtains had been open when John Middleton and Mike Worthington had been administered the first dose of midazolam, and for the 20 minutes thereafter, we would have people screaming of a botched execution."

Parish was also an attorney for Middleton, whom the state of Missouri executed July 16. Worthington was executed in Missouri on Aug. 6.

"It scares me what was hidden by those closed curtains when the midazolam was administered ... what was hidden behind my client's very still body because he couldn't respond to pain at the time the pentobarbital was administered," she said. According to Parish, Middleton was one of two inmates that were administered six milligrams of midazolam.

Parish said Middleton was initially given three milligrams of midazolam. "The doctor made a determination that the drug wasn't quote 'having the desired effect' and so they administered another three milligrams, 20 minutes later," she said.

"Something happened to John Middleton in that time period that made the doctor say, 'Oh, we got to give him more drugs before we open the curtain. We can't open the curtain in the state he is in.' And I think that we have got to investigate this stuff," Parish said.

Parish thinks all executions should stop until "we figure out the truth about what's going on in Missouri. And who knew what, who made what misrepresentations."

"We have made [our] presentation to the governor's office. And I am hopeful that the governor will do the right thing. Whether he will or not is up to him," Parish said.

Regarding Ringo's imminent execution, Rev. Dr. Cathleen Burnett, vice chair of Missourians for Alternatives to the Death Penalty and professor emerita of University of Missouri-Kansas City, said, "I think that's a question to ask the governor. I only have hopes that it will be halted. This is the 10th execution in 10 months, and there have been very significant issues that the governor hasn't been willing to look at in other cases."

According to Burnett, MADP has contacted Gov. Jay Nixon's office. The organization will be holding vigils across Missouri to bring awareness to those unaware of the execution. "And also, to simply be a visible witness of our resistance to this policy," Burnett said.

[Mick Forgey is an NCR Bertelsen intern. He can be reached at mforgey@ncronline.org.]

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