Ohio became the first state in the nation Friday to adopt a single-injection method for executing condemned inmates, a process that state officials believe will avoid violating the constitutional ban on cruel and unusual punishment.
The single large dose of anesthetic is similar to the method used by veterinarians to euthanize pets and livestock. Other states with capital punishment now use a three-drug formula that is believed to inflict pain if not properly administered.
Richard Dieter, executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center, said that Ohio's new method was "a better alternative."
"My understanding is this one drug is not in itself painful -- that it will put you to sleep and cause death all in one process," said Dieter, who remains opposed to executions on moral grounds. "That said, it hasn't been tried with human subjects, so it's a bit of an experiment."
Ohio's decision, announced in filings with the U.S. District Court in Columbus, was prompted by an incident at the Lucasville prison on Sept. 15, when the execution team failed to carry out the death penalty against Romell Broom because they couldn't locate a vein capable of receiving the injections.
The corrections personnel spent more than two hours poking the convicted murderer's limbs, making as many as 18 insertions before the execution was called off.
Lawyers for Broom fought the state's plan to carry out the execution a week later and won a reprieve. Other executions have been on hold pending review of the procedures.
Ohio will now use a 5-gram dose of sodium thiopental -- 2 1/2 times the amount used in the three-injection method.
In the 34 other states that allow execution, the sodium thiopental injection is followed by a dose of pancuronium bromide, which causes paralysis, and then a final dose of potassium chloride to stop the heart.
The advantage to the single-injection method is that "there is no chance the inmate could be awake" when death occurs, said Dr. Mark Dershwitz, a University of Massachusetts Medical School anesthesiology professor who served as an expert witness in the Ohio deliberations. "The disadvantage is it will take longer for the coroner to be able to pronounce the inmate dead."
How much longer is uncertain, Dershwitz said, as the procedure hasn't been performed on humans. But he estimated that death would probably occur within 10 minutes, as opposed to the nearly instantaneous death caused by the potassium chloride injection.
Ohio corrections chief Terry Collins said in the court papers that the new procedures would be in place by Nov. 30 -- in time for a scheduled Dec. 8 execution if the stay imposed after Broom's experience is lifted.
"Ohio has taken an important step by abandoning the barbaric practice of paralyzing inmates before executing them," said Elisabeth Semel, a law professor and director of the Death Penalty Clinic at UC Berkeley.
Semel added, however, that more medical information will be needed before courts can determine whether the one-drug method satisfies the 8th Amendment's prohibition of cruel and unusual punishment.
Legal analysts say that they expect other states to follow Ohio's example if the state manages to carry out single-injection executions without the problems that have arisen in some of the three-drug procedures.
California, which has the nation's largest death row with 685 prisoners, is revising its lethal injection procedures but rejected the single-drug method early in the review process. No reason was given at the time.