ATLANTA — Georgia announced Tuesday that it is switching immediately to single-drug executions from a three-drug combination, following the lead of several other states even as a death row case loomed.
The Georgia Department of Corrections said it will begin using a single dose of the sedative pentobarbital to carry out court-ordered death sentences. It had been using pentobarbital to sedate inmates before injecting pancuronium bromide to paralyze them and then potassium chloride to stop their hearts.
Georgia inmate Warren Lee Hill had been set to be executed Wednesday evening, but authorities said that execution has now been rescheduled for Monday.
Hill's attorney, Brian Kammer, expressed concern about the switch to a single-drug procedure even as he waged legal efforts to spare the inmate. "I think it is troubling to be confronted with a significant change in the execution protocol a day before the scheduled execution of my client," Kammer said in an email.
Hill was serving a life sentence for the 1985 slaying of his girlfriend when he killed a fellow inmate in 1990. A jury in 1991 convicted Hill of murder in the inmate's slaying and sentenced him to death.
Kammer has already appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court seeking a stay of execution to give the high court an opportunity to consider his claims that Hill is mentally disabled and therefore shouldn't be executed. Kammer declined to say Tuesday whether he plans to mount an additional challenge based on Georgia's change of execution.
Georgia's corrections department had been researching a switch for about a year, spokeswoman Gwendolyn Hogan said Tuesday. She added that Corrections Commissioner Brian Owens ordered the change after his staff spoke with corrections officials around the country about their execution procedures and reviewed court opinions and the testimony of medical experts.
Georgia began using pentobarbital as part of its three-drug combination last year after another drug, sodium thiopental, became unavailable when its European supplier bowed to pressure from death penalty opponents and stopped making it. But pentobarbital is now in short supply after its manufacturer said it would try to prevent its use in executions.
Three other states — Arizona, Idaho and Ohio — have carried out single-drug executions using pentobarbital, according to the Death Penalty Information Center. Ohio was the first to use just pentobarbital, during a March 2011 execution. Washington state has used the method with sodium thiopental, the center said. A total of 11 executions have been carried out using pentobarbital alone, said center executive director Richard Dieter.
Texas, the nation's most active death penalty state, last week announced that it would change to a single-drug method using pentobarbital. Its first execution using that method is set for Wednesday.
Missouri has said it plans to use propofol, the anesthetic blamed for Michael Jackson's death, for single-drug executions.
Pentobarbital is most commonly used to euthanize animals and treat seizures. It wasn't created to kill people and still is relatively untested for use on humans, said Fordham University law professor Deborah Denno.
"The whole reason lethal injection was created was to have a humane method of executing people," she said. "Drug selection in the late 1970s had that goal in mind. Now, drugs are chosen out of convenience because they're the only thing available, not because they're the humane choice."
Dr. Howard Nearman, chairman the anesthesiology department at Case Western Reserve University's medical school, said the change to a one-drug procedure makes sense. The drug takes away respiratory drive and creates blood pressure changes that cause the heart to give out, he said.
"They're going to rely on the drug that puts you to sleep to actually make life systems stop working," he said.