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story.lead_photo.caption File - This July 25, 2014 file photo shows bottles of the sedative midazolam at a hospital pharmacy in Oklahoma City. The Arkansas Supreme Court ruled Thursday, June 23, 2016, that the state can execute eight death row inmates using its three-drug protocol, upholding a state law that keeps information about lethal injection drugs confidential. (AP Photo/File)

The Arkansas attorney general's office began putting witnesses on the stand Monday in the federal trial over the state's lethal-injection drugs, starting with two experts who expressed little doubt that the first drug used in executions is effective at blocking the pain caused by later injections.

The testimony of Dr. Daniel Buffington, a pharmacologist and professor at the University of South Florida, and Dr. Joseph Antognini, an anesthesiologist at the University of California-Davis, largely countered assertions made by other expert witnesses called by attorneys for 18 Arkansas death-row inmates during the first week of the trial.

The inmates, through their attorneys present at the nonjury trial, have contended that midazolam -- the first of three drugs used in Arkansas executions -- is not effective at rendering them unconscious, thus causing excruciating pain. The inmates contend the state protocol violates their Eighth Amendment right to be free from cruel and unusual punishment.

Midazolam is followed by vecuronium bromide -- a paralytic that renders an inmate unable to breathe -- and potassium chloride, a heart-stopping drug that is described as causing a "burning" sensation.

Antognini, who said he has worked with thousands of patients, described midazolam as an effective sedative, albeit one that has fallen out of favor in clinical settings in place of more recently developed drugs.

"If we were on an island, and [midazolam] was all I had ... that's what I would give you," Antognini said.

State law dictates what drugs are to be used in executions, but attorneys for the inmates have proposed supposedly less painful alternatives, namely the firing squad.

Throughout Monday's all-day testimony, the inmates' attorneys challenged the conclusions of the state's experts by calling up numerous studies, reports and guidelines that were cited in the experts' written briefs to the court.

In one instance, attorney Will Freeman projected a copy of package instructions for midazolam, showing that Antognini, when quoting the document, had used ellipses to skip over sections that stated the drug should be used along with other drugs for general anesthesia.

Antognini responded that the U.S. Food and Drug Administration has approved midazolam as a general anesthetic.

Both Antognini and Buffington, the pharmacologist, suggested that testimony from the inmates' experts about a "ceiling effect" of the drug -- referring to a point at which larger doses no longer become effective -- were based on speculation, rather than evidence.

The ceiling effect of midazolam, Buffington said, "is simply a theoretical discussion."

"How can you have a consensus on something that has never been proven?" he responded when questioned by an attorney for the inmates. That attorney pointed to last week's testimony of an anesthesiologist testifying for the inmates, Dr. Gail Van Norman of the University of Washington, who had stated "there is a very strong consensus" within the medical community on the ceiling effect.

It will be up to U.S. District Judge Kristine Baker to unravel the dueling testimonies and issue a decision on the legality of the drugs once testimony wraps up later this week.

Two years ago, Baker issued a preliminary injunction in the same case that temporarily halted the state's plans for eight lethal injections in April 2017. Baker's order was overturned, however, by the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in St. Louis. Four of those executions were later carried out.

The case, meanwhile, remained in Baker's court while attorneys prepared their arguments for trial.

That trial will continue at 9 a.m. today in Baker's court.

Metro on 04/30/2019

Print Headline: In trial over Arkansas' lethal-injection drugs, witnesses for state counter death-row inmates’ experts


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Archived Comments

  • Testingonetwothree
    April 30, 2019 at 5:39 a.m.

    Using 1 shot of lead into the heart would settle this discussion and be much less expensive.

    April 30, 2019 at 6:44 a.m.

    I'm not too sure that executions really do what they are supposed to do as far as deterring crime is concerned and the death penalty probably isn't "equally" applied -- but if we are going to use it the wait shouldn't be a dozen years. Neither the families of the victims nor the the inmate deserves that.
    We should return to the electric chair since the inmates don't like lethal injection. I doubt that many of the victims got to complain about any pain involved in their deaths.

  • limb
    April 30, 2019 at 7:07 a.m.

    Old Arkansas Days at Tucker.
    "The chair was a gruesome death; a horror show. Some lived through it to be shocked over and over screaming and writhing until final death that smelled of sickly burnt flesh and worse. There was less justice using no modern forensics. Of course some got this penalty who were innocent. They were easy to pin for the crime, uneducated, poor, some very unaware, deaf and dumb or worse."

  • dph815
    April 30, 2019 at 7:48 a.m.

    I don't think it should be required that absolutely all possibility of pain be eliminated from the administration of execution drugs. Why should that have ever been accepted as a standard in the first place. I am not saying anything more than common sense says that execution was not meant to be a pleasurable experience and that no one was looking to make it painful and a little pain is not be a big deal.
    In my opinion, all that was was a ploy by anti death penalty people to box in advocates for the use of capital punishment.

  • CartoonDude
    April 30, 2019 at 7:54 a.m.

    Give them their choice of lethal injection or electrocution. Trust me, they will ALL choose lethal injection. Why do we so obsess over a murderer's suffering for the last couple of minutes of their life? Their victims suffered far worse at their hands. Every day in Arkansas, people suffer excruciating death from cancer and many other unpleasant maladies. It's really difficult for me to well up sympathy for these people whining about a little pain. They best be more concerned with what happens after they die.

  • hah406
    April 30, 2019 at 8:23 a.m.

    If they would just add fentanyl to the midazolam there would be no issues. It is just like a junkie OD'ing on the street. They just quit breathing. Any first year medical student could tell you that, and there is enough of that stuff around to kill us all several times over.

  • Anon74
    April 30, 2019 at 10:32 a.m.

    Cruel and unusual doesn't mean "pain free". They are being executed, put to death, shuffling off this mortal coil, it's going to hurt. If you really want it to not be cruel and unusual and for them to be happy and content, bring them into a room, tell them that there's been a mistake and that they are free to go, when they turn to leave the room, put a hollow point in their skull. It's a win win, their last thoughts are happy and content and they are still executed.

    As far as deterring crime, I can promise you that those executed will never commit another crime, so I would say it's very effective as a deterrent. Now, whether it has an impact on the rest of the criminal population is up for debate. At one point, there were studies that showed a statistical drop in rates after an execution. But probably not anymore.

  • GeneralMac
    April 30, 2019 at 12:08 p.m.

    If you are going to keep executions, bring back the gallows of the old west.

    Contrary to an individual committing suicide by using hanging as strangulation, the method of the opld west had an "expert" create the noose to fit the individual.

    The huge knott was always at the side of your neck and when the trap door opened the huge knott broke your neck.

    A much "neater" death than strangulation which is what happens in a suicide hanging.

  • hah406
    April 30, 2019 at 1:21 p.m.

    Mac, little known fact that there was also a calculation called the drop height. Based on the man's weight and height, so that they knew how high the drop needed to be for a clean break without pulling his head clear off.

  • silverstar1160
    April 30, 2019 at 5:54 p.m.

    I don't agree with the death penalty, it does not detear crime nor is it justice.All it is murder done by government approval like wars. After all government cruscified Jesus, he died for all our sins. How could anyone kill someone else and call it justice, it's just as criminal. LWOP the conscious of people will prevail,if they can live with the crime they committed. To many innocent people have been incarcerated and wrongfully executed, innocence proven after they have been executed. If families want execution they should half to be ones administer it,making 2 families suffer is not justice.