A US judge has delayed what would have been the first federal execution in 17 years.
The injunction issued by Judge Tanya Chutkan of the US District Court in Washington postpones the execution of triple murderer Daniel Lewis Lee, along with the executions of three other men set for July and August.
The delay allows for the men to continue their legal challenges against a new lethal injection protocol.
In her order, Judge Chutkan wrote: “The scientific evidence before the court overwhelmingly indicates that the 2019 protocol is very likely to cause plaintiffs extreme pain and needless suffering during their executions.”
She said the inmates were likely to succeed in their claim that the protocol – which uses a powerful barbiturate called pentobarbital – breaches a constitutional ban on “cruel and unusual” punishment.
A medical expert, who is being used by the inmates to support their claim, says a high dose of the drug rapidly fills the lungs with bloody fluid, leaving the person feeling like they are drowning for some time before they lose consciousness.
Shawn Nolan, one of the lawyers for the inmates, said there were “many unanswered questions about the legality” of the new execution protocol.
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The inmates are calling for a painkiller, such as morphine, to be added to the injection to make their deaths less painful, or for the option of execution by firing squad.
The delay of the executions frustrates efforts by Donald Trump’s administration to bring back capital punishment at federal level, a move that has been made difficult by the unavailability of certain drugs.
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The European Union has banned the sale of drugs used for execution or torture, meaning US prisons cannot get them from many pharmaceutical companies.
The US Department of Justice had created a secret group of private companies to make and test pentobarbital, but some of those companies later said they did not know they were testing drugs used for execution, Reuters news agency reported.
The administration has asked the US Supreme Court to overturn Judge Chutkan’s order, describing it as “meritless” and saying it would “scramble” plans to “administer a dignified and humane lethal injection”.
The Department of Justice also mounted a challenge, saying its plans for the executions – including training the 40-member execution team – could not “easily be undone”.
Judge Chutkan’s order came just hours before Daniel Lewis Lee was due to be executed by lethal injection in Indiana.
He was convicted of murdering three members of an Arkansas family, including an eight-year-old, in 1996.
The other executions delayed were those of Wesley Purkey, Dustin Honken and Keith Nelson, all convicted of murdering