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Federal judge sides with Missouri in death penalty case

Tuesday, August 16, 2011 | 7:56 p.m. CDT

ST. LOUIS — A federal judge has rejected Missouri inmates' challenge of the state's execution procedure, saying she found no evidence the state's method of lethal injection caused unnecessary suffering or pain.

The inmates' lawsuit argued that Missouri does not get valid medical prescriptions for the drugs used to put prisoners to death. The lawsuit also cited the state's use of non-medical personnel to administer the chemicals intravenously.

U.S. District Judge Nanette Laughrey said the inmates' lawsuit failed to show that anyone has ever suffered because non-medical personnel play roles in delivering the toxic doses of chemicals.

"Plaintiffs present neither an injury already suffered nor demonstrate any certainty that plaintiffs will ever be subject to severe pain," Laughrey wrote in her Monday decision.

Joseph Luby, a Kansas City attorney who represented some of the inmates, said it was unclear whether they would appeal. "Obviously we respect the court's ruling, but we certainly disagree with it," he said.

The Missouri attorney general's office did not respond to a message seeking comment, and the state Department of Corrections declined comment.

Missouri's three-drug execution process has been the subject of legal wrangling for several years. Executions were largely on hold in Missouri for five years as the courts debated the constitutionality of lethal injection. A ruling in 2010 opened the way for executions to resume, though the only one since then was in February when Martin Link was put to death for killing an 11-year-old St. Louis girl.

Missouri's protocol uses the drug sodium thiopental to render the inmate unconscious, pancuronium bromide to stop his breathing and potassium chloride to stop his heart.

The suit notes that the Department of Corrections' execution team consists of four people — an anesthesiologist and a nurse, along with two department employees who are not medically trained. The suit claims the workers without medical training actually administer the lethal drugs by attaching a syringe to a port along the IV line that flows into the prisoner, then pushing the content of the syringe into the IV line.

Luby said attorneys for the inmates believe that process violates federal law.

"Every execution contains a series of criminal acts," he said. "That fact speaks volumes about the troubled state of Missouri's death penalty. Whether we're able to redress those issues through a civil lawsuit of this kind, that's the big issue of our lawsuit."


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