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Looming Missouri execution turns spotlight on lethal injection drugs

By Carey Gillam

(Reuters) - Michael Taylor has been here before.

The 47-year-old convicted murderer due to be executed in Missouri on Wednesday, came within hours of dying in 2006 before a court ordered a stay on concerns about the doctor and the drugs prison officials planned to use.

Now, a team of defense attorneys from Los Angeles to Washington D.C., is again fighting to keep Taylor out of the death chamber. They have filed a flurry of appeals that include attacks on the state for its methodology and secrecy over the lethal injection drugs the state intends to use. The lawyers also argue that Taylor should be serving a life sentence instead of facing death.

The battle over Taylor's life is emblematic, many death penalty experts say, of how the capital punishment debate is evolving. And the current focus in Missouri and in many U.S. states on what types of drugs are used and if those drugs cause undue suffering is seen as key pivot point.

"States are moving to increasingly desperate and underhand methods of drug procurement," said Maya Foa, director of the anti-death penalty group Reprieve. "They are attempting to draw an iron curtain in front of the execution to prevent people from seeing what's really going on."

Taylor, who has spent 23 years on Missouri's death row, makes no claim of innocence. He long ago admitted guilt in the 1989 rape and stabbing of the teenage girl he and a friend abducted from a Kansas City-area school bus stop.

But his attorneys argue his execution now will not only be unduly painful due to the state's use of unregulated drugs, but also needless.

"He poses no threat to society," said John Simon, one of Taylor's attorneys. "His death would come far too late to have any deterrent effect."

From the state's perspective, Taylor has evaded capital punishment long enough.

"The state and crime victims have an important interest in the timely execution of a death sentence," Missouri Attorney General Chris Koster said in federal court filing opposing Taylor's request for a stay of execution.

The United States Supreme Court indicated it may consider Taylor's appeal for a stay of execution, but several motions before the U.S. District Court in the Western District of Missouri, and the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit in St. Louis have so far failed.

BATTLE OVER DRUGS

Like Missouri, several U.S. states, including Ohio, Florida and Georgia have been turning to lightly regulated compounding pharmacies for lethal injection drugs after major pharmaceutical companies stopped allowing sales of their drugs for executions.

Advocates for inmates in several states have launched court challenges saying the drugs can be lacking in purity and potency and cause undue suffering that violates the 14th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which forbids states from inflicting "cruel and unusual punishment."

The fact that many states, including Missouri, try to keep information about the drugs secret, adds to the concerns.

"This is no way for states to act in carrying out the most solemn and serious acts - ending the life of a fellow human being," aid Brian Stull, senior attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union Capital Punishment Project.

Advocates for victims say execution is a just punishment in many cases and lethal injection makes for a less violent death than many victims had suffered.

"We don't torture people, but that doesn't mean we have to make sure the pillows are fluffed," said Kent Scheidegger, legal director of the Criminal Justice Legal Foundation, a victims' advocacy group. "The attorneys try to make it all about the inmate. We really should be focused on the crime."

EXECUTION DATE NEARS

As Taylor's execution date nears, his lawyers and Missouri's Attorney General's office have inundated courts with claims and counterclaims over whether or not Missouri officials are acting properly in preparing for the execution. Among other things, Taylor's attorneys have accused the state of hiding information about the drugs the state will use.

Earlier this month, Taylor's attorneys sued an Oklahoma compounding pharmacy they believed was providing Missouri with pentobarbital to execute him. The pharmacy agreed not to provide any drugs for Taylor's execution, but the state said it had other drugs and the execution would proceed as planned.

In a telephone interview with Reuters, Taylor said he is a changed man who deeply regrets the drug-fueled decisions that led him to death row. His accomplice Roderick Nunley is also on Missouri's death row.

"I am totally not the same person I was," he said. "It's hard to understand that life without parole is not good enough."

Taylor was nearly executed in 2006 before a court-issued stay following revelations that the doctor Missouri used for executions was dyslexic and admitted to using improper dosages for lethal injections.

Taylor said he watched news coverage of a recent Ohio execution where there were concerns that the inmate suffered before dying. It scared him, he said, and he worries about his mother and the emotional toll his execution will take on her.

He also wants the family of his victim, 15-year-old Ann Harrison, to know he is sorry and hopes one day they will forgive him.

"I have no right to say anything," Taylor said. "We all have to go before God."

Ann's parents, Janel and Bob Harrison, said they were not sure they could or would find forgiveness. But they said they did know Taylor deserves to be executed.

"We look at Taylor's execution as justice for Ann," Janel Harrison said. "Will we have closure or peace? We certainly hope so. When you commit the ultimate crime ... there should be the ultimate penalty."

(Editing by Dina Kyriakidou and Gunna Dickson)

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