Nevada’s execution of a man convicted of murder was halted on Wednesday, after the manufacturer of one of the drugs that was to be used in the lethal injection argued that the state had obtained its product illicitly.
A district court judge issued a temporary restraining order preventing Nevada officials from using the drug in the execution. It was the first time that a pharmaceutical manufacturer has been able to stop an execution — at least temporarily. It is likely to intensify the battle between officials in death-penalty states and drugmakers that object to their products being used to kill inmates.
Nevada had planned to use three drugs in the execution of Scott Dozier, who has been on death row since 2007: one as a sedative, one to paralyze him, and the powerful synthetic opioid fentanyl to help kill him. The execution would have been the first to use fentanyl, which kills thousands of Americans every year and is at the forefront of the nation’s overdose crisis.
The potential use of commonly abused narcotics like fentanyl in executions has alarmed human-rights organizations. They fear that prison officials in death-penalty states, facing objections from pharmaceutical companies, will turn to the black market to obtain those narcotics, bolstering trafficking networks at the same time authorities are desperately trying to curb them.
But the drug that led to the postponement of the execution on Wednesday was not fentanyl but midazolam, the sedative in the three-drug cocktail, whose use in executions has been bitterly disputed for different reasons. Judge Elizabeth Gonzalez of the Clark County District Court issued the restraining order.
Alvogen, the drug’s manufacturer, had sued to block its use, saying Nevada obtained the drug under false pretenses because the company did not want it to be acquired for use in capital punishment. Alvogen said it would suffer “immediate and irreparable harm” if the medication were used for such purposes.
State officials bought the drug from a wholesale distributor, Cardinal Health, but did so without disclosing that it was to be used in an execution and not for a therapeutic purpose, according to Alvogen’s lawyers.
The plaintiffs said Nevada officials had also instructed Cardinal Health to ship the drug to a state office in Las Vegas instead of to the state prison in Ely, Nev., more than 200 miles away, where the death chamber is. This was done, they said, “to further the implication that the midazolam was for a legitimate medical purpose.”
Nevada had also planned to use a paralytic drug, cisatracurium besylate, whose maker, Sandoz, also tried to stop it from being used in the execution.
The state said it would not proceed with the execution Wednesday night if officials were not allowed to use midazolam. If Nevada were permanently prevented from using the medication, it would have to find another combination of drugs to execute Mr. Dozier.
Judge Gonzalez’s ruling was hailed by human rights groups and anti-death penalty activists.
“This ruling affirms that the makers of medicines have a right to decide how their products are used,” said Maya Foa, the director of Reprieve, a human-rights organization based in London. “These lawsuits exposed how Nevada ignored drug-safety laws designed to protect the public and used subterfuge to undermine private contracts.”
In a statement issued after the ruling, the Nevada Department of Corrections said the execution “has been postponed.”
Critics had warned that Mr. Dozier could endure a prolonged and excruciating death. The midazolam, they said, was likely not to render him fully unconscious, and when the fentanyl was injected, he would have to endure the sensation of suffocation. High doses of fentanyl kill by severely depressing the respiratory system.
The third drug to be injected — the paralytic agent — would have prevented Mr. Dozier from writhing on the gurney or showing any outward signs of pain, even as he suffered an agonizing death, the critics added. They argued that the paralytic could potentially mask the suffering involved in a botched execution.
But Mr. Dozier said he was fine with all of that. He has waived appeals of his death sentence and told the judge in his case that he wanted to die, even if he suffered in the process.
In an interview this week with The Las Vegas Review-Journal, Mr. Dozier, 47, said his desire to be executed hadn’t waned even after learning that the state intended to use an experimental drug protocol.
“Life in prison isn’t a life,” Mr. Dozier told the newspaper. “This isn’t living, man. It’s just surviving.”
He added: “If people say they’re going to kill me, get to it.”