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Unsealed court filings center on midazolam dispute

MONTGOMERY, Ala. (AP) — Newly unsealed Supreme Court filings in an Alabama death penalty case show the continuing disagreement between inmate attorneys and the state over the effectiveness of the sedative midazolam in shielding prisoners from pain during lethal injections.

The portions of the court filings, which were previously blacked out, detail the views of medical experts testifying on behalf of death row inmate Christopher Lee Price, who was executed last month, and for the state of Alabama.

The arguments are similar to those made in previous court fights in Alabama and elsewhere over the use of the drug in executions.

The documents were made public in their entirety after justices on Monday granted a request from NPR and the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press to make the court filings public without having portions blacked out.

Price had unsuccessfully sought a stay from the high court as he argued that the state’s lethal injection process in unconstitutionally painful.

Price was executed last month after justices said the execution could proceed.

A lawyer for Price wrote that their three experts, including two anesthesiologists and a surgical pathologist, say inmates will experience “excruciating pain” and the drug would cause the inmate’s lungs to fill with fluid.

Alabama disputed those claims and said their expert, a pharmacist with a doctorate degree, said the state uses a dose higher than what a doctor would use in a medical setting.

Inmates challenging their method of execution must suggest an alternative means for carrying out their death sentence. Price asked to be put to death by breathing pure nitrogen gas, a method the state has authorized but not yet used.

John Palombi, an attorney with the Federal Defenders Program who represents multiple death row inmates, said the unsealed portions of Price’s court filing include a footnote indicating the “state’s expert agreed that death by nitrogen hypoxia, if done properly, would be pain free.”

Palombi wrote in an email that,” Despite this, the state chose to execute (inmates) by a method that has been found to cause an unconstitutional level of pain.”

Alabama has maintained the lethal injection procedure is constitutional and courts have upheld its use.

Alabama did not oppose the request to unseal the court documents, according a court filing, since a federal appellate court recently ruled in another case that Alabama can’t keep its lethal injection procedures a state secret.

Lawyers for the state told justices the prison system maintains security concerns over the release of some execution procedures, but “accepts that its protocol likely will be disclosed.”

The 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in March sided with The Associated Press and other news outlets seeking Alabama’s lethal injection protocol and other records related to an aborted 2018 execution.

That case is now back before a federal judge.

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