UPDATE: Questions surround future executions in Virginia - WSLS 10 NBC in Roanoke/Lynchburg Va

UPDATE: Questions surround future executions in Virginia

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5:50 p.m.

Two years ago Rex Taylor struck up a friendship with one of the most infamous names in the New River Valley, William Morva.

Morva is on death row after being convicted of killing a hospital security guard and a Montgomery County Sheriff's Deputy in August 2006.

Taylor and Morva have sent each other dozens of letters over the last two years and have repeatedly spoken over the phone.

But one letter sent recently stuck with Taylor.

It was to the point, including the words "I don't want to die here."

"I knew when we first started talking that he was going to be put to death eventually," Taylor said. "But after getting to know him and becoming friends with him, when I read something like that it really does get to me. It bothers me."

Now the question for Morva and the seven other death row inmates in Virginia is how they will be executed. It's usually done through lethal injection, but getting the drugs needed is becoming a big problem.

We requested the lethal injection protocol from the Virginia Department of Corrections (VADOC).

A three drug cocktail is used consisting of a sedative, paralytic and a heart stopping drug.

The two sedative drugs traditionally used, Pentobarbital and Thiopental Sodium, are now nearly impossible to come by as manufacturers worldwide have refused to sell drugs used for capital punishment.

The Commonwealth's solution is to use Midazolam as its sedative.

It's the same drug used during a January execution in Ohio where it took the inmate 24 minutes to die, raising concerns of cruel and unusual punishment.

The VADOC said its protocol is not comparable to Ohio's, since the midwestern state uses a two drug cocktail.

"We've seen states sort of on the fly swap drugs out, substitute drugs, change their protocols, and in Virginia that's been going on as well," said Matthew Engle, the interim director of the Virginia Capital Case Clearinghouse run through Washington and Lee Law School. "What is most troubling about it is that it's been going on behind closed doors."

Engle is concerned the Commonwealth is turning to a new drug without releasing any of its studies or research.

"What will happen is what's happening in Ohio and what's happening in Oklahoma which is that we will have problems with executions and there will be lawsuits afterwards," he said. "That's when we'll find out what's actually going on, but that's not what it should take."

However, another option being explored by the General Assembly is changing how death row inmates are executed. 

"We have the death penalty on the books, we're supposed to enforce the law yet we don't have a mechanism to actually do so," said Delegate Greg Habeeb (R-Salem).

Habeeb is one of more than 60 delegates that voted this year to make the electric chair the primary form of execution, an option now used only if requested by the inmate.

That bill passed the House of Delegates but stalled in the Senate.

"I'm one of those people that isn't aggressively seeking to expand the death penalty," Habeeb said. "But Virginia has a public policy and what's happening is Virginia is unable to enforce (it) because of policy decisions made in Europe. That's frankly sort of a backwards way for us to be setting our policy."

It's a policy that is at the mercy of the companies manufacturing the drugs.

For now, it's unclear how William Morva and the lives of the other death row inmates will end.

No executions are on the schedule, so Engle and Habeeb agree there's still time to get it right.

"We should be looking at this process ahead of time, we should be preventing these problems from happening," Engle said. "The only way to do that is through an open process."

Governor Terry McAuliffe did not respond to our request for an interview and Attorney General Mark Herring declined to comment.

However, while in the Senate Herring voted to expand the death penalty five times. 


LEXINGTON (WSLS) - Virginia has eight inmates currently on death row and one of the main questions is how they will be executed.

Virginia's lethal injection protocol consists of three drugs: a sedative, paralytic and a heart stopping drug.

The sedative used is now nearly impossible to find, forcing the Commonwealth to turn to a less tested drug called Midazolam. The Virginia Department of Corrections says the new drug cocktail went through an extensive, multi-step process before being selected.

However, those tests have not been released publicly.

"The Constitution exists to protect all of us and prevent the government from torturing any one of us," said Matthew Engle, the interim head of the Virginia Capital Case Clearinghouse, a resource for defense attorneys run through Washington and Lee Law School. "We can't effectively check the government if they're allowed to develop this entire protocol behind closed doors and not answer any questions."

Tonight at 6 p.m. on WSLS 10, we dig deeper into the death penalty, what's changed in the Commonwealth and why some experts question if it can be done in a humane way.
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