WASHINGTON - The Supreme Court has ordered Oklahoma to postpone lethal injections executions using a controversial sedative until the court rules in a challenge involving the drug.
The court's order Wednesday came as little surprise after both the state and the lawyers for three inmates who faced execution between now and March requested the temporary halt. The justices agreed on Friday to take up the challenge to the use of the sedative midazolam, which has been used in problematic executions in Arizona, Ohio and Oklahoma.
The case will be argued in April and decided by late June.
Left open by the court's order is whether Oklahoma can carry out an execution that does not involve midazolam.
In April, Oklahoma botched the execution of inmate Clayton Lockett, who writhed and strained on the gurney before finally dying of a heart attack. It was later revealed that some of the three drugs used in the execution didn't enter Lockett's system because the vein they were injected into -- in his groin -- collapsed, and that failure wasn't noticed for 21 minutes.
Last week, Oklahoma carried out its first execution since Lockett's death. Charles Warner, who was originally scheduled to be executed the same night as Lockett, was put to death with the same lethal injection formula.
The execution came after a divided U.S. Supreme Court in a 5-4 ruling said it wouldn't consider an appeal filed by Warner and three other death row inmates, who claimed the drugs present an unconstitutional risk of pain and suffering.
In a dissenting opinion, Justice Sonia Sotomayor wrote that she believes questions about the effectiveness of the drugs are particularly important because of states' increasing reliance on new and scientifically untested methods of execution.
"Petitioners have committed horrific crimes, and should be punished," Sotomayor wrote. "But the Eighth Amendment guarantees that no one should be subjected to an execution that causes searing, unnecessary pain before death."