AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
In Ohio tomorrow, a federal court hearing could decide whether how prisoners are executed. At issue is whether Ohio will be the first to use a particular cocktail of deadly drugs to execute
KAREN KASLER, BYLINE: While Texas is far and away the busiest state in the nation for executions, Ohio was just seven spots behind it on the list. It has carried out 52 executions since 1999 and three so far this year, with another one scheduled in two weeks. And that one, the execution of Ronald Phillips, could be the first ever to use a new drug cocktail.
ANDREW WELSH HUGGINS: The reason they went to these drugs is, essentially, they're running out of options.
KASLER: Andrew Welsh Huggins is an Associated Press reporter who's written a book about capital punishment in Ohio. He says Ohio has run out of its primary execution drug, pentobarbital, which has been getting scarce in the death penalty states that use it because its Danish manufacturer will no longer sell it for use in executions. Mike Brickner with the American Civil Liberties Union of Ohio says this is the third time in five years that Ohio has changed to a lethal injection method that's untested.
MIKE BRICKNER: We really don't know what the effect of these - using this drug cocktail will be, and that's the really scary thing with a lot of this is that really what we are proposing is basically experimenting on human beings.
KASLER: Ohio is proposing using the opioid hydromorphone, which has never been used in a lethal injection anywhere before, and the sedative midazolam, which was used along with two other drugs in an execution two weeks ago in Florida. Attorneys for several death row prisoners in Florida filed a lawsuit this week challenging the use of midazolam in future executions.
Lawsuits and some botched executions forced Ohio to come up with a Plan B for putting inmates to death. A 2006 execution took nearly 90 minutes, with the inmate raising his head at one point to say that the drugs weren't working. And in September 2009, an inmate who's still on death row essentially survived his own execution when prison officials scrubbed it after repeatedly searching for a suitable vein for the lethal injection.
The drugs Ohio now wants to use are the ones selected for its alternative execution plan, which also allows for injection into a muscle when no vein can be found. That plan has never been put into action. Richard Dieter is with the National Death Penalty Information Center, which opposes capital punishment.
RICHARD DIETER: So they've had these backup drugs available just in case they couldn't find a vein. Now they're using the backup procedures because they can't find the drug pentobarbital. So it's sort of coming in through the back door.
KASLER: But capital punishment supporters here say it's important to come up with a permanent execution method because the death penalty law protects public safety. Hamilton County Prosecutor Joe Deters has sought the death penalty in 120 cases during his seven years in that office in Cincinnati.
JOE DETERS: They could just bring back the firing squad. I don't care. If they're going to have a death penalty in Ohio, they should carry it out. And if you don't want it, get rid of it. That's fine with me.
KASLER: The hearing in federal court tomorrow will feature unusual testimony, from the inmate himself who will be in the courtroom via a video hookup. There are currently 139 inmates on Ohio's death row, so even if the federal judge strikes down this new method of execution, Ohio will likely come up with another alternative. For NPR News, I'm Karen Kasler in Columbus.