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Tennessee temporarily suspends executions statewide

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A court must settle challenges to lethal injection protocol

Mike Simons/Getty Images

The Tennessee Supreme Court has effectively suspended all executions in the state, The Washington Post reports. The court recently voided the scheduled execution dates of four inmates in response to concerns about the state's lethal injection protocol. In a court order filed last week, the state said all upcoming executions would be delayed until a trial court could comment on judicial challenges raised by the inmates.

Currently, each of the four death row inmates has legal action pending against the state that questions the constitutionality of lethal injection. The inmates' executions were scheduled to occur between October of this year and March 2016, the Post reports, and their suspension has momentarily ceased all capital punishment in the state.

The state has a backup plan: electrocution

Tennessee is the most recent of several US states to nullify scheduled executions. Last September, Oklahoma halted capital punishment following a botched lethal injection. Early this year, Ohio postponed state-sanctioned execution because it ran out of the two-drug cocktail used for lethal injection.

The largest group of pharmacists in the US recently drafted a policy asking members to refrain from providing prisons with chemicals used for executions. However, there is no single drug used nationwide for lethal injections. States use one-, two-, and three-drug cocktails, while the chemicals used and the order in which they are administered vary. Arizona and Oklahoma have both faced pushback for the use of the midazolam as a sedative, because it has no pain-relieving properties. Tennessee's injection protocol currently calls for a single drug, the sedative pentobarbital. An affidavit submitted recently on the inmates' behalf suggests that shortages will prevent the state from getting the pentobarbital it needs, the AP reports.

Last year, Tennessee expanded its use of the electric chair as a way to head off the drug shortage, the Post reports. Lethal injection is still the default method of execution in the state, but electrocution will be used if the courts deem lethal injection unconstitutional, or the influx of drugs dries up.

After the trial court weighs in, the state Supreme Court will "exercise its authority to set new dates of execution" for the four inmates.