Federal suit seeks to block Alabama execution using new combination of drugs

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MONTGOMERY, Alabama — An Alabama death row inmate has filed a federal lawsuit arguing that the state's new lethal injection drug combination has never been tried on any prisoner in the United States and amounts to cruel and unusual punishment.

Boston attorney Aaron Katz filed the suit Wednesday night in Mobile on behalf of inmate Christopher Lee Price.

The suit asks a federal judge to block the state from using a new, three-drug combination to execute Price.

The state prison system developed the combination after running out of one of the drugs in its old execution protocol. Alabama has not had an execution since 2013 because of the shortage, but state Attorney General Luther Strange asked the Alabama Supreme Court last month to set execution dates for Price and eight other inmates using the new drug combination.

Price, a 42-year-old native of Winfield, was sentenced to death for the killing and robbery of Fayette County Church of Christ minister Bill Lynn on Dec. 22, 1991. Lynn and his wife had returned home from Sunday night church services and he was assembling Christmas presents for their grandchildren when their lights went out. He went outside to see what was happening and was cut repeatedly with a sword and knife. Guns, cash and jewelry, including his wife's wedding ring, were stolen. The U.S. Supreme Court declined to review Price's case last year, which cleared the way for the attorney general to seek an execution date.

Another death row inmate, Tommy Arthur, filed papers with the Alabama Supreme Court last week objecting to the new drug combination.

Strange's office, which will defend the state against the suit, did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

Alabama had previously used to use sodium thiopental or pentobarbital as the first drug in the combination to make an inmate unconscious, but it could no longer obtain those drugs. The suit said the new combination calls for midazolam hydrochloride, and it "will not induce general anesthesia sufficient to prevent an individual from perceiving and feeling pain." The suit cites executions in Arizona, Ohio and Oklahoma where midazolam hydrochloride was used and inmates gasped for gasped for air or writhed and groaned.

State lawyers have defended the new drug protocol and noted that Florida has used midazolam hydrochloride without the problems cited in the suit.

According to the Death Penalty Information Center, Florida and Oklahoma have used midazolam hydrochloride as part of a three-drug protocol, and Ohio and Arizona have used it as part of two drugs.

Alabama follows the first drug with the paralytic agent rocuronium bromide to stop breathing and then potassium chloride to stop the heart. Florida's three-drug protocol uses a drug to cause paralysis, but it is not the same one Alabama uses, according to the suit.

The suit says Alabama's three-drug combination has never been tried on any U.S. prisoner and has never been approved for use by any state or federal court.

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