By Lawrence Hurley
WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The U.S. Supreme Court agreed on Wednesday to temporarily block the execution of three Oklahoma inmates who are challenging the state’s lethal injection procedure.
The court’s action means that convicted killers Richard Glossip, John Grant and Benjamin Cole will not be put to death using the sedative which they object to before the Supreme Court decides whether the procedure violates the U.S. Constitution’s ban on cruel and unusual punishment.
The court’s brief order leaves open the possibility the state could proceed with the executions using different drug combinations.
Last week, the high court agreed to hear the case, but did not block the inmates’ death sentences at that time. Oral arguments before the high court are set for April, with a decision due by the end of June.
Oklahoma’s three-drug process has been under scrutiny since the flawed April 2014 execution of convicted murderer Clayton Lockett. He could be seen twisting on the gurney after death chamber staff failed to place the IV properly.
The inmates challenging the state’s procedures argue the sedative used by Oklahoma, midazolam, cannot achieve the level of unconsciousness required for surgery, making it unsuitable for executions.
“The scientific evidence tells us that even the proper administration of midazolam can result in an inhumane execution,” said Dale Baich, an attorney for the Oklahoma inmates.
The state contends its current drug combination is appropriate and effective.
“I disagree with the necessity to grant Glossip yet another round of legal appeals. However, given that the U.S. Supreme Court has decided to hear his case, it is entirely appropriate to delay his execution until after the legal process has run its course,” Oklahoma Governor Mary Fallin said.
Glossip, convicted of arranging for his employer to be beaten to death, was scheduled to be executed on Thursday. Grant, who stabbed a correctional worker to death, was due to be executed on Feb. 19. Cole, convicted of killing his 9-month-old daughter, was scheduled for execution on March 5.
On Jan. 15, the high court declined by 5-4 to halt Oklahoma’s execution of Charles Warner, convicted of raping and murdering an 11-month-old baby. Warner had raised the same legal question as the other inmates.
The court’s apparently contradictory acts indicate divisions between its five conservative and four liberal justices. Although five votes are needed to grant a stay application, only four are required for the court to take up a case.
(Additional reporting by Jon Herskovitz in Austin, Texas and Heide Brandes in Oklahoma City; Editing by Will Dunham and Peter Cooney)