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Judge rules U.S. government's lethal injections break law, halts execution

(Reuters) - A federal judge ruled on Thursday that the Justice Department’s new lethal injection protocol violated drug safety laws and ordered a planned execution for Friday to be halted.


The sun sets on the Federal Corrections Complex

Since resuming federal executions after a 17-year hiatus in July, the Department of Justice has been injecting condemned inmates with lethal doses of pentobarbital, a highly regulated barbiturate. The department executed three murderers in July and a fourth on Thursday and had planned to execute Keith Nelson on Friday.


Judge Tanya Chutkan of the U.S. District Court in Washington ruled that the department was breaking the Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act (FDCA) by administering pentobarbital without a medical practitioner’s prescription, agreeing with death row inmates who sued the government.


“Where the government argues that a lethal injection drug is legally and constitutionally permissible because it will ensure a ‘humane’ death, it cannot then disclaim a responsibility to comply with federal statutes enacted to ensure that the drugs operate humanely,” Chutkan wrote in a 13-page opinion.

Because pharmaceutical companies refuse to sell pentobarbital for executions, the Justice Department is instead paying a so-called compounding pharmacy in secret to make small batches of the drug.


Chutkan ruled that this also violated the FDCA, which forbids pharmacists from making copies of drugs already available on the market. Justice Department lawyers asked the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit to overturn Chutkan’s ruling.


That court has previously ruled that execution drugs are at least partly governed by drug safety laws. In 2013, it upheld an order binding the U.S. Food and Drug Administration that stopped imports of sodium thiopental that were headed to state execution chambers.

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