Make us your home page

Today’s top headlines delivered to you daily.

(View our Privacy Policy)

New Florida death penalty drug raises questions

Florida’s new first drug in its lethal injection cocktail is midazolam hydrochloride.

Florida Department of Corrections

Florida’s new first drug in its lethal injection cocktail is midazolam hydrochloride.

TALLAHASSEE — Florida is switching to an untried drug for lethal injections, and death row lawyers are poised to fight the change, calling it a potential violation of the constitutional ban on cruel and unusual punishment.

Like many other states, Florida is running out of pentobarbital, a barbiturate and the first of three drugs injected into a condemned inmate in an execution.

The new drug is midazolam hydrochloride, a sedative that legal experts say has no track record of effectiveness on death row because it has never been used in an execution in the United States.

Legal experts say the question is whether it will make an inmate unconscious before two more powerful drugs take effect.

"No state has used that drug in an execution, so we don't know what's going to happen," said Richard Dieter of the Death Penalty Information Center in Washington. "The first drug is critical. If it doesn't work, the next two drugs are excruciatingly painful. Even when executing people, we need to respect dignity and humaneness."

Florida's lethal injection cocktail is administered in three intravenous stages and is intended to induce unconsciousness, paralysis and cardiac arrest. The second and third drugs are vecuronium bromide and potassium chloride.

Corrections Secretary Mike Crews said the state was forced to change the first drug because its supply of pentobarbital is low and the drug's maker prohibits its use in future executions.

"The reason was availability," Crews said.

Other states face similar challenges. Texas will get supplies of pentobarbital from a special pharmacy, and Ohio ran out of the drug after an execution last week.

Ohio and Kentucky list the new Florida drug as a default or backup drug, but neither state has used it in an execution.

Lawyers for Florida death row inmates want federal judges to review the new drug before it can be used.

In civil rights cases pending in U.S. District Court in Jacksonville, lawyers for death row inmate Etheria Jackson say the new drug "poses a substantial risk of serious harm and violates the evolving standards of decency encompassed in the Eighth Amendment," which prohibits cruel and unusual punishment. The change "warrants discovery, investigation and judicial review," they argued.

The lawyers say midazolam hydrochloride, marketed under the brand name Versed, "is the shortest-acting benzodiazepine on the market" and is primarily used as a sedative in a surgical setting before an anesthetic is used.

U.S. District Judges Timothy Corrigan and Marcia Morales Howard have scheduled oral arguments for Nov. 6.

The new drug cocktail will be used for the first time Oct. 15 in the execution of William Happ, who was convicted of the rape and strangulation of Angela Crowley of Fort Lauderdale. She was abducted from a pay phone outside a Crystal River convenience store in 1986 and her battered body was later found in the Cross-Florida Barge Canal.

She was 21 years old.

Happ, 51, told a judge in a 20-minute court hearing on Sept. 13 that he's ready to be executed and asked that no legal actions be taken to delay it.

"I've thought about this for many years," Happ said to Circuit Judge Richard Howard of Inverness. "I would prefer to have it carried out."

Happ's attorney, Eric Pinkard of St. Petersburg, declined to comment, saying the change in lethal injection procedures "is potentially subject to legal proceedings."

Deborah Denno, a law professor at Fordham University who has studied lethal injection procedures across the country, said Florida's continued use of a three-drug protocol is contrary to the trend in other states, which is to use one drug. She said the use of the new drug as an anesthetic poses a significant risk. Florida is one of 14 states that uses a three-drug cocktail, and one of 32 states with the death penalty.

"Florida is going against every trend we've seen in the last five years. In an effort to make this method of execution more humane, Florida seems to be regressing," Denno said.

Times staff writer Dan Sullivan and researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report. Steve Bousquet can be reached at or (850) 224-7263.

New Florida death penalty drug raises questions 10/02/13 [Last modified: Thursday, October 3, 2013 12:19am]
Photo reprints | Article reprints

© 2017 Tampa Bay Times


Join the discussion: Click to view comments, add yours

  1. Federal study says humans harmed by dispersant used during Deepwater Horizon


    A first-of-its-kind scientific study has determined that the dispersant BP sprayed at the oil gushing from the Deepwater Horizon rig in 2010 harmed human health.

  2. Across Tampa Bay, local commercial banks and credit unions appear healthy


    In another sign of economic vitality, Florida's home-grown banking industry demonstrated strong bench strength in the latest quarterly analysis by Bauer Financial. The vast majority of commercial banks with headquarters in Florida received five "stars" from Bauer, which is the highest ranking of health on its 0-to-5 …

    Several years ago, First Home Bank in Seminole faced regulators breathing down its neck for inaedquate controls and financial weakness. Under CEO 
Anthony N. Leo, the bank has rebounded. It received a top-rated "5" star rating from Bauer Financial in the latest quarter. Most area banks are doing better these days. [SCOTT KEELER      |     TIMES]
  3. Two linemen lose their wedding rings in Tampa Bay. So far one has been found and returned.

    Human Interest

    Two linemen who spent days restoring power in the Tampa Bay area had the same unfortunate mishap: They lost their wedding rings.

    Facebook helped Michael White find the wedding ring he lost while helping restore power in Tampa Bay.
  4. Need is now for new mental health center at Bay Pines, veterans say


    ST. PETERSBURG — Veteran Ellsworth "Tony" Williams says the Bay Pines VA Healthcare System's new mental health center will help fill an immediate need.

    The new mental health center at the Bay Pines VA Healthcare System stands four stories tall and was built at a cost of $92 million. It will centralize services that before were scattered. [HOWARD ALTMAN   |   Staff]
  5. GOP health bill all but dead; McCain again deals the blow


    WASHINGTON — Sen. John McCain declared his opposition Friday to the GOP's last-ditch effort to repeal and replace "Obamacare," dealing a likely death blow to the legislation and, perhaps, to the Republican Party's years of vows to kill the program.

    Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., speaks to reporters on Capitol Hill in Washington in July.  McCain says he won't vote for the Republican bill repealing the Obama health care law. His statement likely deals a fatal blow to the last-gasp GOP measure in a Senate showdown expected next week. [Associated Press]