Richard Jordan, a Vietnam veteran whose mental state deteriorated following his military service, was spared execution in Mississippi last week following a federal judge’s order. The Attorney General’s office had requested an execution for Jordan on Thursday August 27, but the Mississippi Supreme Court failed to authorize this. The federal judge, African American US District Judge Henry T. Wingate, then temporarily halted all executions in the state. You can read Wingate’s order at Buzzfeed.
When the announcement came, Jordan and the other death row inmates, including Willie Manning, were on their fourth week of lockdown, which blocks their usual hour’s daily access to an outside pen, and prevents delivery from the prison store. In this situation the news of Wingate’s order must have afforded them some relief.
Jordan and another inmate, Ricky Chase, challenged Mississppi’s lethal injection protocol in April, saying that they risk excruciating pain and torture during an execution that violates the U.S. Constitution’s Eighth Amendment prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment. At that time pentobarbital was the anesthetic that Mississippi planned to use for executions. Because manufacturers were unwilling to supply this drug, the state was probably hoping to procure it from an unregulated compounding pharmacy. Pentobarbital has since become harder to obtain: compounding pharmacies as well as manufacturers are now refusing to supply the drug for executions. Some states have turned to midazolam as a substitute, and the US Supreme Court ruled in June that midazolam can be used in executions in Oklahoma, despite huge doubts about its effectiveness as an anesthetic.* Mississippi changed its lethal injection protocol partway through Jordan and Chase’s lawsuit: it stated it had destroyed its expired supply of pentobarbital, and would now use midazolam instead.
Wingate finds a violation of Mississippi Statutory law and the Due Process clause of the Fourteenth Amendment of the US Constitution in the State’s failure to use an “ultra-short acting barbiturate or other similar drug” (pentobarbital is a barbiturate; midazolam is not). Wingate’s ruling also states that the more reliable anesthetic, pentobarbital, is still being used by other states in executions and “continues to be an option for use by the State of Mississippi”.
As well as specifically prohibiting executions using midazolam or compounded pentobarbital, Wingate’s order requires Mississippi to submit to the court any alternative plans for execution using any other drug or combination of drugs.
The death penalty is, sadly, far from ended in Mississippi – but for now, at least, the inmates of Mississippi State Penitentiary’s death row can breathe a little easier, thanks to Wingate’s ruling.