Alabama Supreme Courts sets 2015 execution dates for 2 inmates

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MONTGOMERY, Alabama — The Alabama Supreme Court has set execution dates for two inmates who will be the first put to death with the state's new lethal-injection-drug combination.

The Supreme Court set a Feb. 19 execution date for Tommy Arthur, who was convicted of the 1982 murder-for-hire of a Muscle Shoals man. The court set a March 19 execution date for Bill Kuenzel, who was convicted in the 1987 murder of a convenience store clerk in Sylacauga.

They will be Alabama's first executions since 2013; a shortage of execution drugs left the state unable to carry out death sentences in 2014. The Alabama Department of Corrections in September announced it was turning to a new three-drug combination.

Lawyers for the state said Alabama's new drug combination is similar to that used by Florida to execute multiple inmates without incident. Arthur's attorneys say they will fight the execution date because Alabama plans to use the same drug involved in "botched executions in other states."

"It is wrong for the state of Alabama to execute Mr. Arthur when crucial litigation is underway, and we intend to contest the most recent order," said one of the attorneys, Suhana S. Han.

The new drug protocol calls for the sequential injections of 500 milligrams of midazolam hydrochloride, a sedative; 600 milligrams of rocuronium bromide, a neuromuscular blocking agent that stops breathing; and 240 "milliequivalents" of potassium chloride to stop the heart.

Lawyers for Arthur said midazolam hydrochloride is unreliable as a sedative and that the inmate would feel the effects of the two drugs administered after it.

Midazolam hydrochloride was used in executions in Arizona, Ohio and Oklahoma in which inmates gasped, writhed or groaned and took longer than expected to die.

The Alabama attorney general's office argued in court filings that there was no proof the inmates suffered and called Arthur's legal challenges part of a long pattern of trying to avoid a trip to the death chamber by repeatedly challenging the execution method.

Two states, Florida and Oklahoma, have used midazolam as the first drug in a three-drug protocol, according to the Death Penalty Information Center. Ohio and Arizona have used midazolam in a two-drug protocol.

Arthur has a pending federal lawsuit that challenged the state's previous death-penalty protocol that used different drugs. The 11th U.S. Court of Appeals in 2012 stayed Arthur's execution just days before it was to occur. A judge has not ruled on Arthur's request to amend his existing lawsuit to challenge the new drug combination.

Kuenzel was convicted of killing clerk Linda Offord at Joe Bob's Crystal Palace convenience store.

Co-defendant Harvey Venn testified against Kuenzel at trial after taking a plea deal. Venn testified that after driving around, Kuenzel decided to rob the convenience store. He testified that Kuenzel went into the store and he heard a shotgun blast and saw the clerk thrown back.

Kuenzel's attorneys said his case is "clamoring for review" because of newly discovered evidence. They said Venn, who had the victim's blood on his clothes, had a 16-gauge shotgun in his car, the same type of weapon used to kill Offord, instead of a 12-gauge gun he claimed he had. Venn also initially told police that he had been at the convenience store with another friend, not Kuenzel.

The 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in 2012 rejected similar claims, and lawyers for the state argued the evidence would not have changed the trial outcome.

The attorney general's office is also seeking execution dates for seven other inmates.

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