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Study shows some believe death knell is sounding for executions in Arizona, US

(AP Photo/Eric Risberg, File)

PHOENIX — A recently released study has some feeling that executions could become a thing of the past in Arizona.

Arizona has executed fewer than 10 people since 2012, a Death Penalty Information Center study found, and no one in the past two years.

The state has killed nine inmates in the past four years, a large drop from the late 1990s, when nine inmates were put to death in 1999 alone.

However, the nine inmates killed since 2012 is sixth-highest in the nation for that time span. Arizona only trails Texas, Florida, Missouri, Oklahoma and Georgia.

The state is stuck in limbo as a debate rages over the drugs it uses to execute prisoners.

Executions in Arizona were put on hold after the July 2014 death of convicted killer Joseph Rudolph Wood, who was given 15 doses of midazolam and a painkiller. It took nearly two hours for him to die.

Though Arizona no longer uses midazolam in its fatal cocktail, a lawsuit brought by several prisoners alleges that the state’s process of killing those sentenced to death violates the Eighth Amendment.

The state has argued that the suit is moot because midazolam is off the table. Dale Baich, one of the attorneys representing death-row prisoners, said that even if the lawsuit’s claims involving lethal-injection drugs are dismissed, his clients still have claims.

They say that Arizona Department of Corrections Director Charles Ryan has abused his discretion in the methods and amounts of the drugs used in executions.

The lawsuit is not the only blockade to the state executing prisoners. Court filings show the state’s supply of midazolam expired in May and it has no access to supplies of pentobarbital and sodium thiopental.

States are struggling to obtain execution drugs because European pharmaceutical companies began barring the use of their products for lethal injections.

Death penalty states refuse to disclose the sources of their drugs, though the sources are widely believed to be compounding pharmacies — organizations that make drugs tailored to the needs of a specific client. Those pharmacies do not face the same approval process or testing standards of larger pharmaceutical companies.

U.S. District Judge Neil Wake of Arizona is among those who feel the lack of proper drugs and other execution options could signal the end of the death penalty in Arizona.

The state is not alone when it comes to a drop in executions.

Executions nationwide will likely reach a 25-year low this year and just three states — Texas, Georgia and Missouri –are using the death penalty with any regularity.

The reduction in executions and in the number of states that are enforcing death sentences led Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg to conclude recently, “I think the death penalty is fading away.” There is not enough support on the court to abolish capital punishment, Ginsburg said, but added that may not be necessary.

“Most states don’t have any executions. The executions that we have are very heavily concentrated in a few states and even a few counties within those states,” she said in an interview with the Associated Press in July.

Ginsburg joined a lengthy dissenting opinion by Justice Stephen Breyer last year that highlighted problems with the death penalty that led the two justices to conclude that it probably is unconstitutional.

The longer states such as Arizona go without executions, the harder it may be for them to resume, said Robert Dunham, executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center.

“The law of inertia is that a body in motion tends to stay in motion. A body at rest tends to stay at rest,” Dunham said.

There are policy parallels for that with the death penalty. Right now most states are comfortable not executing anybody. And for the most part, the public is comfortable, even in death penalty states, with their states not executing anybody.”

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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