- Associated Press - Friday, July 25, 2014

RICHMOND, Va. (AP) - One of the drugs used in three recent botched executions across the country will remain part of Virginia’s lethal injection protocol, a spokesman for the prison system said Friday.

Larry Traylor said the Department of Corrections is not considering eliminating midazolam as one of the three drugs that can be used as the first dose in Virginia’s three-drug cocktail. Midazolam was one of the drugs used in Wednesday’s execution in Arizona, where an inmate snorted and gasped for breath for more than 90 minutes before dying.

“The Virginia three-drug protocol is not comparable to the Arizona two-drug protocol,” Traylor said in an email.

The sedative midazolam also was one of the drugs used in previous bungled executions in Ohio and Oklahoma. Traylor said Virginia’s protocol most resembles the one Florida has used in seven executions this year. Both states use a 500-milligram dosage of midazolam - substantially more than the amount used in Arizona, Ohio and Oklahoma.

Virginia added midazolam to its protocol in February but has yet to use it in an execution. The state’s last lethal injection execution was in August 2011, and execution dates have not been set for any of the eight inmates remaining on Virginia’s death row.

Jonathan Sheldon, who represents three of those death row inmates, said the most recent botched execution bolsters claims he has raised on appeals that lethal injection is cruel and unusual punishment. He hopes to be able to renew that argument.

“It’s a really slim opportunity because courts have already denied the claim - but they did it on incomplete information, the protocol has changed and other states are having these problems,” Sheldon said in a telephone interview.

He said attorneys also have pressed prison officials for changes.

“We’ve told them they should stop doing these protocols everyone is messing up,” Sheldon said.

Stephen Northup, an attorney and executive director of Virginians for Alternatives to the Death Penalty, said he would expect any defense lawyer in a death penalty case to raise the issue of the recent problems.

“Certainly if I had a client on Virginia death row at risk of execution, I’d be going after this full bore,” he said.

Arizona and Ohio used a two-drug protocol of midazolam and the painkiller hydromorphone. Virginia administers the muscle relaxer pancuronium bromide or rocuronium bromide as the second step, followed by potassium chloride, which stops the heart - drugs akin to those used by Oklahoma as well as Florida.

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