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Appeals court temporarily halts Alabama execution

By Kelli Dugan

MOBILE, Alabama (Reuters) - Less than a week before he is scheduled to be put to death, an Alabama inmate has been granted his fifth stay of execution as a U.S. appeals court considers his objection to the state's lethal injection drug cocktail.

An appeals court on Friday postponed the March 29 execution planned for Thomas Douglas "Tommy" Arthur while the full court considers whether Alabama's lethal injection protocol is constitutional.

At issue is the state's use of a new three-drug cocktail that includes a sedative called pentobarbital, which Arthur's defense team contends constitutes "cruel and unusual punishment."

The attorneys cited concerns that have been raised in other death penalty cases about whether the drug renders an inmate fully unconscious.

Courts in other states have rejected similar arguments about pentobarbital, a sedative often used to euthanize animals.

Arthur, 70, has spent nearly half of his life on death row for his role in the 1982 contract killing of Muscle Shoals businessman Troy Wicker Jr.

The ruling Friday gives the Alabama Attorney General's Office until Monday evening to file its petition requesting a re-hearing on the matter and stays the execution until further order from the appeals court.

A lawyer for Arthur also has written to U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder and the Drug Enforcement Administration raising questions about whether the Alabama prison system has the necessary registration to administer the drugs used in a lethal injection.

The lawyer, Suhana Han, said in the letter that they searched DEA records in December and could only locate a registration for a dentist and a doctor tied to the prison system. She said that those practitioners are barred from using the medicine for lethal injections.

Han noted that prison systems in states such as Georgia, Arizona and Texas had DEA registrations but Alabama had refused requests to disclose if it had a registration.

A spokeswoman for the Justice Department, which is headed by Holder and includes the DEA, declined to comment. A spokesman for the Alabama Department of Corrections was not immediately available for comment on Friday evening after normal business hours.

(Additional reporting by Jeremy Pelofsky in Washington; Editing By Colleen Jenkins and Greg McCune)