By Steve Barnes
LITTLE ROCK, Ark. (Reuters) - The Arkansas Supreme Court on Thursday upheld execution protocols regarding lethal injection drugs, moving the state that has not held an execution in more than a decade closer to resuming capital punishment.
The court overturned a lower court decision favoring eight death row inmates who argued prison officials were violating state law by not disclosing the manufacturers and suppliers of the lethal injection drugs.
They also contended that some of the chemicals in the lethal mixture could lead to suffering that would violate constitutional protections against cruel and unusual punishment.
The Arkansas court ruled that the inmates had "failed to establish that the identity of the supplier of the drugs bears any relevance."
Governor Asa Hutchinson and Attorney General Leslie Rutledge, Republicans who support a return to executions, expressed satisfaction with the court’s decision and said they would confer on how to proceed.
But Arkansas may find it difficult to resume executions after pharmaceutical company Pfizer this year cut off the last major U.S. source for drugs in the lethal mixture.
More than 20 states, including Arkansas, that use a combination of drugs for lethal injections are facing a scarcity of drugs. The shortage has caused Ohio to halt executions until at least next year.
Arkansas has executed 27 prisoners since the U.S. Supreme Court reinstated the death penalty in 1976. It held its last execution in November 2005, according to the Death Penalty Information Center, which monitors capital punishment.
States have been trying to find drugs after mostly European drugmakers began banning sales of their products for use in executions about five years ago over ethical concerns.
One of the drugs in the Arkansas mix, the sedative midazolam, has been the subject of several court cases. Lawyers for death row inmates have argued that it could not achieve the level of unconsciousness required for surgery and was therefore unsuitable for executions.
The Arkansas court in its decision allowed for use of the drug.
"We are studying the ruling now and will seek a re-hearing based on what we think is the court’s misreading of the law,” said Jeff Rosenzweig of Little Rock, an attorney for the inmates.
(Reporting by Steve Barnes in Little Rock and Jon Herskovitz in Austin, Texas; Editing by Toni Reinhold)