By Chris Kenning


CHICAGO (Reuters) - A divided U.S. appeals court on Wednesday lifted a preliminary injunction against Ohio's lethal injection process, potentially clearing the way for the state to resume executions.


In an 8-6 ruling, the full 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals overturned an injunction affirmed in April by a three-judge panel from the court that had delayed executions in Ohio. The state, which has its next execution scheduled in July, appealed that injunction against the use of a three-drug protocol.


The appeals court's ruling on Wednesday disputed the lower-court finding that it was likely that Ohio's use of midazolam hydrochloride entailed a "substantial risk" of serious pain that violated prisoners' constitutional rights against cruel and unusual punishment. Midazolam is used to render condemned inmates unconscious before two other drugs are administered in executions.


"The district court's findings thus provide little support for its conclusion that Ohio's three-drug protocol creates an unconstitutional risk of pain," the majority opinion said.


Several U.S. states use midazolam in executions, including Oklahoma and Arizona, where witnesses said inmates during past executions appeared to twist in pain on death row gurneys. Arizona previously agreed to stop using the sedative.

In the Wednesday ruling, the Cincinnati-based 6th Circuit majority said that while the protocol might cause pain in some cases, plaintiffs did not meet the legal standard showing the method to be sure or very likely to cause serious pain. One dissenting judge said the plaintiffs should be granted a trial on the method's constitutionality before they are executed.

Allen Bohnert, one of the attorneys representing the death row prisoners who brought the lawsuit, said in a statement he would seek review by the U.S. Supreme Court.

"Ohio should not take the risk of continued botched executions by going back to using these dangerous, unsuitable drugs," he said.

The Ohio governor's office had postponed nine executions because of the injunction including that of Ronald Phillips, who was sentenced to death for the 1993 rape and murder of his girlfriend's 3-year-old daughter.

The Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction has Phillips scheduled for execution on July 26, one of four scheduled for 2017, and 23 more individuals scheduled through 2020.

Phillips would be the first execution in Ohio after a pause of more than three years.

Department spokeswoman JoEllen Smith said in an email the agency "remains committed to carrying out court-ordered executions in a lawful, humane and dignified manner."

(Reporting by Chris Kenning; Editing by Richard Chang, Marguerita Choy and David Gregorio)