Editorial: Needed review of death penalty drugs

Published Feb. 7, 2014

The Florida Supreme Court was right Thursday to order the state's lethal injection practice be reviewed. Gov. Rick Scott should suspend further action on executions until the high court satisfies that Florida's procedures at least meet the minimum standards of law.

The justices' order to a lower court in Jefferson County is to review whether a substitute drug used in the state's three-drug injection cocktail is active enough to ensure the condemned is not denied the constitutional right against cruel and unusual punishment. It stems from the case of death row inmate and convicted murderer Paul Augustus Howell, who is scheduled to be executed Feb. 26. Howell's attorneys have charged that midazolam, the first in the three-drug protocol, will not fully anesthetize Howell, leaving him partially sedated and unable to communicate his pain from a second drug that induces suffocation.

The court order was overdue. Defense attorneys have claimed since Florida embarked on this experimental regimen last year that midazolam is a short-acting drug that could cause those not fully anesthetized the physical agony of suffocating. Florida and other states switched to the new drug after manufacturers of the barbiturate pentobarbital ceased selling it for executions. Justices also ordered the lower court to take expert testimony on charges that the state's administration of the cocktail left inadequate time for the anesthetic to take effect.

The state practices called out by the Supreme Court go to the constitutional basis of the death penalty, and short of following other states that have repealed it, Florida should at least ensure that the procedure is lawful. If the lower court needs more time beyond Wednesday's deadline to complete a full and fair review, the high court should grant it. Scott, in the meantime, should hold off action on any new death penalty cases.