Virginia's list of approved lethal injection drugs now includes one of the chemicals used in an Ohio execution that led to a lawsuit by the inmate's family who says his death was cruel and inhumane.
The Virginia Department of Corrections said Thursday that it has approved the sedative midazolam as an alternative first drug in the state's three-drug execution protocol. Midazolam was one of two drugs used in last month's execution of an Ohio inmate who made snorting and gasping sounds and took an unusually long 26 minutes to die. His family is suing Ohio.
Illinois-based Hospira Inc., which manufactures midazolam, opposes its use for capital punishment but has been unable to stop state prison systems from obtaining it from suppliers.
Virginia prison officials did not immediately respond to questions about their decision to approve the drug.
Steve Northup, executive director of Virginians for Alternatives to the Death Penalty, said that while he doesn't know much about midazolam, he is concerned about its possible use in Virginia based on what he has read about the Ohio execution.
The development comes as many death penalty states are grappling with a shortage of drugs that can be used in executions. Many of the drugs are manufactured in European countries that have prohibited their export for use in capital punishment.
Virginia lawmakers are considering legislation that would allow the state to use the electric chair in executions if lethal injection drugs are not available when an inmate's execution date arrives. Under current law, death row inmates can choose either the electric chair or lethal injection. If they decline to choose, they get the injection.
Northup said he has seen state documents showing that the Department of Corrections acquired midazolam and other execution drugs late last year.
"I've been a little mystified by their position before the General Assembly on the electrocution default bill that they don't have the drugs available," Northup said.
Virginia is second only to Texas in the number of executions since capital punishment was reinstated in 1976. It now has only eight people on death row. No executions are scheduled, and Northup said none are likely to be set for this year because the inmates' appeals have not been exhausted.