Florida's highest court put executions on hold Tuesday while the U.S. Supreme Court decides whether use of a controversial general anesthetic constitutes cruel and unusual punishment of condemned killers.
The state Supreme Court stopped the execution of Jerry William Correll next week because the Supreme Court recently agreed to hear a challenge some Oklahoma inmates brought against use of midazolam hydrochloride as the first of three drugs used in lethal injections. Florida uses essentially the same formula, the court said in a 5-2 ruling.
The state switched to midazolam as an anesthetic in 2013 when some foreign drug manufacturers quit supplying other drugs previously used in executions. The Department of Corrections said 11 lethal injections have been carried out with midazolam in Florida since then.
Florida courts have approved midazolam, but the nation's highest court agreed Jan. 23 to hear an appeal by 21 Oklahoma inmates in a case citing prolonged executions and signs of pain reported in that state, Arizona and Ohio.
Chief Justice Jorge Labarga wrote that if the nation's highest court rules in favor of the prisoners, "then Florida's precedent approving the use of midazolam and the current Florida three-drug protocol will be subject to serious doubt as to its continued viability."
Justices Charles Canady and Ricky Polston dissented, saying Florida should proceed with Correll's execution unless the U.S. Supreme Court stays it. Canady wrote that a stay in another state does not automatically require one in Florida, and that agreeing to review Oklahoma's use of the drug means the justices will forbid it.
Canady said Oklahoma agreed to postpone three pending executions, while Florida has not agreed to suspend lethal injections. Correll, scheduled to die Feb. 26, was the only Florida inmate with an active death warrant.
He also noted that lower federal courts have approved Oklahoma's use of the drug and said it is "purely speculative" whether the Supreme Court will reverse them.
Richard Dieter, executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center in Washington, said the Supreme Court appeal is a toss-up.
"They might affirm it," Dieter said. "But it would be terrible to go ahead with an execution when the person's life or death depends solely on his having a date between the Supreme Court agreeing to hear the case and its decision in that case."
Correll was convicted of the 1985 murders of his ex-wife, their 5-year-old daughter and his former mother-in-law and sister-in-law.