Judge mulls arguments in Mississippi death penalty protocol

Wanda Farris, the mother of slain teenager Leesa Gray, second from right, is surrounded by...
Wanda Farris, the mother of slain teenager Leesa Gray, second from right, is surrounded by supporters as she leaves the federal courthouse in Jackson, Miss., on Monday, Nov. 28, 2022, after they listened to several hours of arguments about Mississippi's three-drug protocol for executions. Thomas Edwin Loden Jr. pleaded guilty in 2001 to capital murder, rape and four counts of sexual battery in the 2000 death of Gray, a 16-year-old waitress from north Mississippi. Loden is a plaintiff in the lawsuit. The Mississippi Supreme Court has scheduled his execution for Dec. 14, 2022. (AP Photo/Rogelio V. Solis)(Rogelio V. Solis | AP)
Published: Nov. 28, 2022 at 8:21 PM CST
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JACKSON, Miss. (AP) — A federal judge will decide whether to block Mississippi from using three drugs when it puts inmates to death, and his ruling could determine whether the state carries out its next execution in about two weeks.

U.S. District Judge Henry Wingate heard several hours of arguments Monday in a lawsuit filed in 2015 on behalf of some Mississippi death row inmates. Wingate noted that one of the plaintiffs in the lawsuit, Thomas Edwin Loden Jr., is facing a Dec. 14 execution date, which was recently set by the Mississippi Supreme Court.

“The court is going to move expeditiously on this matter,” Wingate said, an indication that he could issue a decision within days.

The mother of the 16-year-old girl killed by Loden watched the court hearing. Wanda Farris of Fulton said she has waited 22 years for justice for her daughter, Leesa Gray.

“She was a sweet Christian girl, loved the Lord, had a lot of life ahead of her,” Farris told reporters outside the courtroom.

Farris’ best friend, Sondra Pearce, was also in court to listen. She said she taught Leesa in kindergarten, and she didn’t like hearing the judge and attorneys discuss whether Loden might feel pain during an execution.

“Let’s talk about Leesa and the inhumane things he put her through,” Pearce said outside the courtroom.

Wingate requested a sworn statement from Mississippi Corrections Commissioner Burl Cain about the state’s current stock of execution drugs.

Gerald Kucia, a Mississippi special assistant attorney general, told Wingate that none of the execution drugs currently in stock are expired. He said some expired execution drugs were recently destroyed by the Mississippi Bureau of Narcotics.

Attorneys for the Roderick & Solange MacArthur Justice Center sued the Mississippi prison system, saying the state’s lethal injection protocol is inhumane.

Jim Craig, a MacArthur Center attorney, said Monday that since 2019, only Alabama, Oklahoma, Mississippi and Tennessee have conducted executions using a three-drug protocol.

According to the Death Penalty Information Center, 27 states have the death penalty. Craig said a majority of death-penalty states and the federal government used a three-drug protocol in 2008, but the federal government and most of those states have since started using one drug.

“Mississippi also has no serious training of their staff before an execution takes place,” Craig said. He said the people who insert needles into a condemned inmate for the execution are not present during practice runs of the procedure.

Craig also pointed out that Alabama Gov. Kay Ivey last week sought a pause in executions. Ivey ordered a “top-to-bottom” review of the state’s capital punishment system after an unprecedented third failed lethal injection.

Kucia told Wingate that the U.S. Supreme Court has never blocked a method of execution.

“This court should not say that Mississippi’s method of carrying out executions is unconstitutional,” Kucia said.

Mississippi’s most recent execution was in November 2021 — its first in nine years. The Mississippi Department of Corrections revealed in court papers in July 2021 that it had acquired three drugs for the lethal injection protocol: midazolam, which is a sedative; vecuronium bromide, which paralyzes the muscles; and potassium chloride, which stops the heart. Cain said the drugs listed in the court records were the ones used for the execution that November. He would not say where the department obtained them.

Mississippi and several other states have had trouble finding drugs for lethal injections in recent years since pharmaceutical companies in the United States and Europe began blocking the use of their drugs for executions.

Loden joined four other Mississippi death row inmates in the federal lawsuit challenging the state’s lethal injection protocol. Mississippi revised the protocol to allow the use of midazolam if thiopental or pentobarbital cannot be obtained.

Wingate granted an injunction to prevent the state from using compounded pentobarbital or midazolam, but the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals reversed that ruling. That sent the case back to Wingate.

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