CHICAGO: The US state of Ohio ended its three-year moratorium on the death penalty Wednesday, using a new drug cocktail that included a controversial sedative to execute a convicted child murderer and rapist.
Ronald Phillips, 43, was put to death by lethal injection, the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction said. He was pronounced dead at 10:43 AM (7:43 PM PST), after an execution that lasted approximately 12 minutes.
Phillips was 19 years old in 1993 when he was convicted of raping and killing three-year-old Sheila Marie Evans, his then-girlfriend’s daughter.
His execution came amid waning public support for the death penalty, with fewer and fewer states carrying out capital punishment and others struggling to find the drugs needed for lethal injections as pharmaceutical companies refuse to sell to them.
Court challenges have attempted to halt states’ efforts to find new drug cocktails that some say result in suffering for the death row inmates – and thereby, a violation of their constitutional protection from “cruel and unusual” punishment.
Phillips was put to death using a three-drug protocol endorsed by a federal appeals court last month that included the sedative midazolam, which lawyers for Phillips and two other inmates said did not lead to sufficient anesthetization.
No guarantee of ‘pain-free’ execution
The midwestern US state had halted its use of capital punishment in 2014, following the botched execution of Dennis McGuire using midazolam, during which the inmate appeared to suffer, snorting and gasping for several minutes.
In the suit filed by Phillips and his fellow inmates, a federal district judge and a three-judge appeals panel initially sided with them, saying the midazolam cocktail posed too great a risk of cruel and unusual punishment.
The state countered that its new drug protocol called for a 50-times greater dose of the sedative, rendering it more effective. A full appellate panel agreed with Ohio, saying “the Constitution does not guarantee ‘a pain-free execution.'”
While the US Supreme Court on Tuesday refused to stay the execution, Justice Sonia Sotomayor wrote in a dissent that the appellate court should have deferred to the evidence-based findings of the lower court judge.
“The Court of Appeals and this Court should not so lightly disregard those findings,” Sotomayor said.
Plea for forgiveness
Phillips’s lethal injection with the higher dose of midazolam appeared peaceful and he did not exhibit any complications, witnesses said.
But one of the inmate’s lawyers, Allen Bohnert, rejected that characterization, claiming a paralytic agent – injected after the midazolam – masked any signs of suffering.
“Ohio, once again, experimented with a drug that overwhelming scientific consensus says cannot render the inmate unconscious and insensate,” Bohnert said.
Phillips – who had admitted to his crimes, but said his own sexual and physical abuse at the hands of his father were mitigating factors – made an emotional plea for forgiveness prior to his execution, according to witness accounts.
“To the Evans family, I am sorry you had to live so long with my evil actions,” Phillips said, “Sheila Marie did not deserve what I did to her.”
Evans’s family who witnessed the execution said they could not forgive.
“She was innocent and loving,” Renee Mundell, Evans’s half-sister, told The Columbus Dispatch newspaper. “It took such a long time for the death of the man who took it all away from her.”
The United States has now executed 15 people in 2017, nine of them using a drug cocktail with midazolam, according to the Death Penalty Information Center.
While the death penalty is legal in a majority of US states, only 49 percent of Americans nationwide support capital punishment for murder, the lowest level of support in more than 40 years, a 2016 Pew poll found.
COVER PHOTO: This undated police mug shot, provided courtesy of the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation & Correction, shows Ohio state inmate Ronald R. Phillips, who, barring any last-minute stays, is scheduled to be executed Tuesday, July 26, 2017. AFP/Ohio Department of Rehabilitation & Correction/HO