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Florida Supreme Court rules execution drug is effective sedative

By Bill Cotterell

TALLAHASSEE (Reuters) - The Florida Supreme Court unanimously upheld the state's new lethal injection procedure, clearing the way for the execution of a Death Row inmate who argued it was ineffective and caused needless suffering.

Askari Abdullah Muhammad, formerly known as Thomas Knight, was due to be executed December 3, but the state Supreme Court ordered a stay last month to hear arguments about the effectiveness of the drug, midazolam hydrochloride, which is used as an anesthetic prior to administering two other drugs that cause paralysis and then death.

A Circuit Court judge ruled earlier this month that midazolam is an FDA-approved drug routinely used as a pre-anesthetic sedative and said "the evidence was undisputed" that the correct dosage of the drug would render an inmate unconscious.

The Supreme Court agreed on Thursday that the drug was effective and lifted the stay on Muhammad's execution.

"Muhammad failed to establish that the current three-drug lethal injection protocol using midazolam hydrochloride as the first drug in the procedure presents a serious risk of needless suffering or sufficient imminent danger in violation of the Eighth Amendment's prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment," the court wrote.

The state has used the drug only twice and, in its first use, some movement of the prisoner caused opponents of capital punishment to claim he was suffering.

Muhammad was convicted of the fatal stabbing of a death row prison guard, Richard Burke.

He was also sentenced to die in 1974 for the abduction, robbery and murder of a Miami couple, Sydney and Lillian Gans.

Aside from his challenge to the first execution drug, Muhammad also argued that his three decades on death row violated the U.S. Constitution's ban on "cruel and unusual punishments" and affected his mental health.

The justices held that both the state and Muhammad's defense team were at least partly responsible for his time under death sentence, and that lengthy periods he spent in solitary confinement "does not provide a sufficient distinguishing basis for this court to depart from its established precedent on this issue."

Several other Florida inmates have also argued in court that the U.S. Constitution's ban on "cruel and unusual punishments" should bar use of midazolam as the first part of the three-drug death protocol adopted by Florida's Department of Corrections.

In the two previous executions involving midazolam last month, the Department of Corrections said it was a humane replacement for pentobarbital, the sedative used previously.

(Writing by David Adams)

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