By Kim Palmer
CLEVELAND (Reuters) - A federal judge dismissed Ohio's new lethal injection process on Thursday, declaring it problematic, and extended a delay in three upcoming executions, saying the courts needed more time to decide whether it is constitutional.
Following a weeklong hearing, Magistrate Judge Michael Merz rejected Ohio's use of certain sedatives in executions after the state changed its lethal injection process in October, according to the ruling.
Merz's decision in Columbus followed a lawsuit brought by dozens of Ohio death row inmates that challenged the new execution process and said the state had refused to disclose the source of the execution drugs used.
Merz ruled that the three-drug protocol adopted in October using a paralytic agent and potassium chloride was “completely inconsistent” with the position the state took in a previous ruling on lethal injections.
“The public interest is also served by the rule of law which in cases such as this demand that persons not be executed unconstitutionally and that the federal courts have ample time to decide whether the intended execution is constitutional or not,” Merz said in his 119-page ruling.
Thursday's ruling prohibits prison officials from using drugs that have previously caused problem in executions in the state and Arizona, which paralyze and stop the hearts of death row inmates.
Ohio's Department of Rehabilitation and Corrections was reviewing the decision, spokeswoman JoEllen Smith said in an email, adding that the agency "remains committed to carrying out court-ordered executions in a lawful and humane manner."
The state had planned to use the new, three-drug process on death row inmate Ronald Phillips in February. Merz's ruling affects two other death row inmates scheduled for execution beginning in February, Gary Otte and Raymond Tibbetts.
Phillips' execution for the rape and murder of his girlfriend's 3-year-old daughter, originally set for December 2009, was halted along with all Ohio executions in 2014 after the execution of Dennis McGuire. Ohio was then the first state to use a combination of the sedative midazolam and painkiller hydromorphone in an execution.
McGuire's execution for the rape and murder of a pregnant woman, witnessed by his adult children and reporters, took 25 minutes. Witnesses said he gasped and convulsed for 15 minutes.
Last October, Ohio said it would resume executions in 2017 under a new lethal injection protocol. Ohio implemented a death penalty moratorium in 2015 due to difficulty in obtaining the drugs needed to perform lethal injections.
(Additional reporting by Gina Cherelus in New York; Editing by Lisa Von Ahn and Jonathan Oatis)