Executions in Louisiana have been on hold for at least a year due to dearth of lethal-injection drugs _lowres

Advocate staff photo by LIZ CONDO. Photo shot on 01/06/10. The execution chamber of the Louisiana State Penitentiary.

Executions in Louisiana are on hold for at least a year because the state doesn’t have the drugs needed to put inmates to death, according to a court filing and a lawyer for a convicted child-killer.

Lawyers for Christopher Sepulvado and the state Department of Corrections were supposed to be in federal court Thursday to schedule a trial on the constitutionality of Louisiana’s method of execution.

Instead, a federal judge on Tuesday delayed the trial and Sepulvado’s execution — as well as those of four other convicts on death row — until July 2016 as Louisiana tries to figure out how it can carry out the death penalty.

This is the second time in a year that the state has asked to delay the trial.

States around the country have struggled to execute prisoners because of shortages of lethal injection drugs in recent years. In a few cases, it’s taken an unusually long time for inmates to die from new drug combinations.

In the motion to delay the hearing, Department of Corrections attorney James Hilburn wrote that “it would be a waste of resources and time to litigate this matter at present” because the facts in the case are changing. He said he expects those issues to be “more settled” by July 2016.

Hilburn declined to elaborate on the reasons for the delay.

Louisiana’s current death-penalty protocol calls for a mix of hydromorphone and midazolam, the same drugs used last summer during an Arizona execution that took nearly two hours to complete. Louisiana’s last known supplies of the drugs expired earlier this year.

Mercedes Montagnes, an attorney for Sepulvado, said the state “came to us after they were unable to locate any legal source for lethal injection drugs and asked for another year to come up with a new method of execution or source of drugs.”

Sepulvado, who was convicted of beating his stepson with a screwdriver and then submerging his body in scalding water, has had his execution date delayed several times in the past two years.

In his lawsuit, he argues that the state’s execution method violates his constitutional protection against cruel and unusual punishment.

As part of that lawsuit, Sepulvado has sought to learn the exact procedure Louisiana will use to put him to death. The state has fought such disclosures in court and in response to public-records requests filed by The Lens.

Meanwhile, Louisiana corrections officials have gotten more creative in getting their hands on execution drugs and have considered new ways to carry out the death penalty.

In January 2014, as Sepulvado’s last execution date approached, the Department of Corrections turned to Lake Charles Memorial Hospital for one of the two drugs it needed to execute him.

According to a hospital spokesman, the state lied to the hospital pharmacist, saying the hydromorphone was for “a medical patient” rather than a prisoner on death row.

“At no time was Memorial told the drug would be used for an execution,” spokesman Matt Felder said at the time.

The state considered getting another drug from an out-of-state compounding pharmacy not licensed in Louisiana, which would have been illegal.

In 2014, the Legislature considered reinstating electrocution as a method of execution. It’s been outlawed since 1991.

At the request of Department of Corrections Secretary Jimmy LeBlanc, the bill was changed to drop electrocution and instead to authorize concealing details about executions, including the source of the drugs used. It was never passed.

Other states, including Arizona, Missouri and Oklahoma, have passed such secrecy laws.

In February, Louisiana corrections officials asked legislators to allow them to use nitrogen, which has never been tried in the U.S. No such bill was introduced this year.

Death-penalty opponents have responded to drawn-out executions around the country by calling execution methods “experimental.”

Last year, a prisoner in Oklahoma tried to rise from the gurney after his injections began. In April, the U.S. Supreme Court heard arguments on the constitutionality of that state’s execution method. It has not yet ruled on the case.

That execution used midazolam, one of the two drugs called for by Louisiana. It prompted Louisiana officials to say they would reconsider the drug.

The state has not said what method it would use instead.

“Obviously, whatever plan the state comes up with will have to be evaluated by the court for its constitutionality,” Montagnes said.

Other death-row inmates who won stays of execution with Tuesday’s ruling are:

  • Jesse Hoffman, sentenced to death in 1998 for kidnapping, raping and fatally shooting Covington resident Mary “Molly” Elliot in 1996.
  • Bobby Hampton, convicted of robbing a liquor store in Shreveport and causing the death of employee Philip Russel Coleman in 1995.
  • Nathaniel Code, a Shreveport man convicted of four killings between 1984 and 1987.
  • Kevan Brumfield, sentenced to death in 1995 for the 1993 murder of Baton Rouge police officer Betty Smothers.

Of the five, only Sepulvado has been given an execution date. But the last date he was given — Feb. 5, 2014 — was delayed, and no new date has been set.

Lawyers are set to meet July 11, 2016, to set a new trial date in his lawsuit.