By Kim Palmer
(Reuters) - A U.S. federal judge has ordered a halt on executions in Ohio until the middle of August, giving attorneys for condemned inmates time to prepare legal challenges to the state's plan to increase the dosages of drugs used when administering lethal injections.
U.S. District Court Judge Gregory Frost's moratorium entered on Tuesday follows a lengthy Ohio execution in January that used a never before tested combination of two drugs which the state now plans to use in increased dosages.
The halt in Ohio also follows a botched execution in Oklahoma that brought renewed scrutiny to lethal injection, the preferred method of execution in the United States.
In April, convicted killer Clayton Lockett writhed in pain and a needle became dislodged during his lethal injection at a state prison in Oklahoma. The execution was halted, but Lockett died from a massive heart attack.
Frost's order bars Ohio from carrying out executions until Aug. 15 or further order of the court, citing the state's April 28 announcement that it would increase the dose of the sedative midazolam and painkiller hydromorphone used in lethal injections.
Ohio has not executed anyone since January when Dennis McGuire, 53, was put to death for the rape and murder of a pregnant woman. The state used a combination of midazolam and hydromorphone, which had never been used in the United States for lethal injection.
The execution, witnessed by reporters and McGuire's adult children, took about 25 minutes to complete. There were reports that he gasped for an unusually long 15 minutes while clenching his fists and his stomach visibly churned up and down.
Ohio said McGuire's movements had been consistent with the drugs' effects and there was no evidence he had experienced pain, distress or anxiety.
The state was next scheduled to execute convicted killers Ronald Phillips and William Montgomery on July 2 and Aug. 6, respectively, according to the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction.
Twenty inmates have been executed in the United States so far this year, all by lethal injection, according to the Death Penalty Information Center.
(Additional writing and reporting by David Bailey in Minneapolis, editing by G Crosse)