(Reuters) - A federal judge granted a serial killer a stay of execution on Tuesday hours before he was to be put to death, allowing him time to challenge Missouri's new lethal drug protocol, a ruling the state immediately appealed.
Joseph Paul Franklin, an avowed white supremacist, was convicted and sentenced to death for killing one man and wounding two outside a St. Louis-area synagogue in 1977. He was scheduled to be executed early on Wednesday at a Missouri prison.
Franklin, 63, has been linked to the deaths of at least 18 other people. He was convicted of killing eight in the late 1970s and 1980s in racially motivated attacks around the country. The victims included two African-American men in Utah, two African-American teenagers in Ohio and an interracial couple in Wisconsin.
Franklin also has admitted to shooting Hustler magazine publisher Larry Flynt in 1978, paralyzing him. Flynt has argued that Franklin should serve life in prison and not be executed.
In October, Missouri changed its official protocols to allow for a compounded pentobarbital, a short-acting barbiturate, to be used in a lethal dose.
The state also said it would make the compounding pharmacy mixing the drug a member of its official "execution team," which could allow the pharmacy's identity to be kept secret.
In granting the stay, U.S. District Judge Nanette Laughrey noted that Missouri had issued three different protocols in the three months preceding Franklin's execution date and as recently as five days before.
"Franklin has been afforded no time to research the risk of pain associated with the department's new protocol, the quality of the pentobarbital provided, and the record of the source of the pentobarbital," Laughrey wrote in the stay order entered in federal court in Jefferson City, Missouri.
Missouri is one of many U.S. states that have been seeking out drugs for executions from compounding pharmacies now that a growing number of pharmaceutical manufacturers refuse to allow their drugs to be used for the purpose.
The practice is controversial because drugs mixed up in compounding pharmacies are not approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and some have been linked by government regulators to illness and deaths.
Critics say use of the compounded drugs could result in needless suffering and botched executions, but states including Missouri have pressed ahead.
The Missouri Attorney General's office asked the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit to lift the stay.
Missouri Governor Jay Nixon denied Franklin clemency on Monday. Franklin is one of 21 plaintiffs challenging the constitutionality of the execution protocol issued by the Missouri Department of Corrections.
If the execution is carried out, Franklin would be the 35th inmate executed in the United States in 2013, according to the Death Penalty Information Center.
(Reporting by David Bailey and Carey Gillam; Editing by Paul Thomasch and Jackie Frank)