The state of Oklahoma executed a convicted murderer using a drug combination that includes a sedative commonly used to euthanize animals, after a nationwide shortage of a key ingredient forced the state to tinker with the usual formula.
John David Duty was pronounced dead at 6:18 p.m. local time Thursday at the Oklahoma State Penitentiary.
The 58-year-old, who was sentenced to die for strangling his cellmate nearly a decade ago, is believed to be the first person in the United States whose execution included the use of pentobarbital.
Duty and two other death row inmates had challenged the state's decision to use pentobarbital, arguing it could be inhumane because a person could be paralyzed but still aware when a painful third drug is administered to stop the heart. On Tuesday, a federal appeals court upheld a ruling against the other two inmates. Duty did not take part in the appeal.
Several states have been scrambling since Hospira Inc. -- the only U.S. manufacturer of the barbiturate normally used in executions -- said new batches of sodium thiopental could be available "in the first quarter" of next year.
Oklahoma obtained a dose of sodium thiopental from Arkansas for its last execution in October, but couldn't secure any more, said Oklahoma Department of Corrections spokesman Jerry Massie.
Executions have been delayed in California, Arkansas, Tennessee and Maryland as a result of protocol changes, including the use of new drugs, said Richard Dieter, executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center. In Ohio and Washington, laws were passed to allow for the use of sodium thiopental alone, he said.
But Oklahoma's law calls for the use of a fast-acting barbiturate to be administered first, which gave the state the flexibility to use pentobarbital, Massie said.
"I think Oklahoma is the only state where this issue has come to a head over a new drug," Dieter said. "The other states that haven't been able to do it, it's because the state courts wanted more time to review the overall protocol changes."
Experts testified at a November federal court hearing that no other U.S. state uses pentobarbital during executions. Massie and Dieter both said before Thursday's execution that they believed Duty would be the first U.S. inmate put to death using the drug.
"I have not seen that (pentobarbital) has been used before in this context,'" Dieter said. But, he noted, "Some states don't say exactly what drugs are used and have kept that out of the public eye.'"
Associated Press writer Rochelle Hines contributed to this report.
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