Officials in Arizona agreed to stop using a controversial lethal-injection drug that has been at the center of botched or prolonged executions in several states, including a 2014 execution in Arizona that took nearly two hours and that experts called one of the longest executions ever conducted in the United States.
The decision by the Arizona Department of Corrections to abandon the drug, a sedative known as midazolam, came in a settlement agreement as part of a lawsuit over the state’s execution drugs and procedures. The agreement, filed in federal court on Monday, settles only a portion of the case, which was brought against the state by seven death-row inmates.
Midazolam was one of two drugs given to Joseph R. Wood III in July 2014 in Arizona’s death chamber in Florence. Mr. Wood, convicted in the murders of his girlfriend and her father in 1989, was injected with 15 times the standard dose of midazolam and a painkiller during a procedure that lasted one hour 57 minutes. Some witnesses described Mr. Wood gasping more than 600 times. The unusual length of a procedure that typically takes about 15 minutes prompted the Arizona attorney general to temporarily halt executions in the state. The hiatus remains in effect under a court order.
“The state’s decision to never again use midazolam is a sensible one,” said Dale A. Baich, an assistant federal public defender who represented Mr. Wood and is one of the lawyers for the inmates suing the state. “Scientific evidence shows that this class of drugs is not an appropriate drug for use in lethal injection executions. Time after time, midazolam has failed to keep condemned prisoners adequately anesthetized and to bring about a quick, humane death.”
The drug remains involved in other legal battles around the country. Death-penalty experts and lawyers representing death-row inmates in those cases applauded the action by Arizona officials, but it was unclear if the decision would lead to changes in the drugs used by other states, some of which use midazolam but many of which do not.
“The state’s choice is an important acknowledgment that midazolam should not be used in executions,” said Megan McCracken, a lethal-injection expert with the Death Penalty Clinic at the University of California, Berkeley, School of Law.
In Virginia, officials plan to execute a death-row inmate, Ricky Gray, using compounded midazolam on Jan. 18. State prison officials around the country have been turning to lightly regulated compounding pharmacies for their execution drugs as the supply from manufacturers grows increasingly limited. Lawyers for Mr. Gray are seeking to block his execution over the use of compounded midazolam, which they said no state has used in an execution before.
“Remarkably, Virginia is poised to take the risks of midazolam to another level,” said Lisa Fried, a lawyer for Mr. Gray.
In 2015, the Supreme Court upheld midazolam’s use in Oklahoma’s three-drug protocol. Even after that ruling, many states have been reluctant to embrace the drug after its use in a high-profile botched execution in Oklahoma in 2014. In that execution, Clayton D. Lockett died 43 minutes after the injections had begun and appeared to moan and struggle.
In the Arizona case, lawyers for the state said that the prison agency’s previous supplier of midazolam no longer provided the drug for use in executions and that the Arizona Department of Corrections’ supply of midazolam had expired this year, on May 31.
A spokeswoman for the Arizona attorney general, Mark Brnovich, referred questions to the state’s Department of Corrections, representatives of which did not respond to requests for comment. Corrections officials had previously defended Mr. Wood’s execution, and a report commissioned by the state found that his execution had been conducted properly.