A U.S. judge accepted on Thursday major revisions to Arizona’s death penalty procedures, such as eliminating paralytic drugs in lethal injections and giving witnesses more access to watch prisoners inside the death chamber, a lawyer for the death row inmates said.
The changes were part of a settlement reached in a 2014 lawsuit brought by seven death row inmates who argued Arizona’s lethal injection practices were experimental, secretive and caused inmates prolonged suffering.
On Thursday, U.S. District Judge Neil Wake in Phoenix signed an order that in effect authorized a deal reached between the state and the lawyers for death row inmates, according to Dale Baich, a lawyer for the death row litigants.
The agreement was announced last week in federal court in Phoenix.
The deal marked the first time a state had agreed to such major changes in its drug protocol and execution procedures because of prisoners’ complaints, Baich said.
Representatives for Arizona’s attorney general and Department of Corrections did not immediately respond to requests for comment.
Lawyers for the inmates called on the state to drop the use of paralytic agents used to halt breathing, arguing the chemicals hid signs of consciousness and suffering during executions.
The state also agreed to limit the authority of the director of the department of corrections to change execution drugs, and allow a prisoner time to challenge any drug changes, Baich said.
States have been scrambling to find chemicals for lethal injection mixes after U.S. and European pharmaceutical makers placed a sales ban in recent years on drugs for executions because of ethical concerns.
In December, Arizona also agreed in the same case to stop using the valium-like sedative midazolam, or related products.
Midazolam has been used in troubled executions in Arizona, Alabama, Ohio and Oklahoma. In some instances, witnesses said convicted murderers twisted on gurneys before dying.
It also was used along with a narcotic in Arizona’s last execution – that of murderer Joseph Wood in 2014. Wood was seen gasping for air during a nearly two-hour procedure in which he received 15 rounds of drug injections. Lethal injections typically result in death in a matter of minutes.
Arizona also agreed under the settlement to allow greater transparency by letting witnesses view more of the execution process, including the moment the executioner administers the drugs intravenously, Baich said.
(Reporting by Eric M. Johnson in Seattle; Additional reporting by Jon Herskovitz in Austin, Texas; Editing by Bill Trott)