For decades most death penalty states used a three-drug lethal injection protocol until the U.S. manufacturer of sodium thiopental stopped supplying it. The other producers of the drug were all in Europe where capital punishment is illegal. Under pressure from its own citizens, these companies have worked to keep their products from being used in U.S. executions.
As a result, state administrators of capital punishment have gotten increasingly frustrated and desperate in their actions to gain access to drugs for executions. Here are a few examples from recent media reports:
- Officials from the Texas Department of Criminal Justice are alleged in court filings to have falsified prescriptions, lied to pharmacies and even broken the law to obtain hard to find drugs for executions.
- Nebraska purchased a supply of sodium thiopental from an India-based drug company which was ruled to have been illegally imported. The state then obtained a new batch from another Indian source which allegedly lied to the Swiss manufacturer, saying it was intended for use as an anesthetic in Zambia.
- Tennessee had its supply of sodium thiopental seized by federal law enforcement agencies over questions about how it was obtained.
- Florida selected midazolam hydrochloride as part of its execution cocktail which one Fordham University professor says is banned for use in euthanizing animals as being too cruel.
- Missouri abandoned plans to use propofol – an anesthetic commonly used in hospital surgical procedures – when warned that the European Union might halt all shipments of the drug to the United States, thus limiting its availability for thousands of hospital patients.
As these and similar state efforts have been tied up in court proceedings, death penalty states are turning to compounding pharmacies (i.e., a largely unregulated source of drugs) and invoking secrecy to keep the public from discovering the source of those execution drugs. For an execution to be humane, the drug or drugs used must be exactly what they purport to be, and the only way to know for certain what is in the syringe is to use a FDA-approved drug.
Furthermore, it is critically important that the public, the courts, and condemned prisoners know what drugs will be used in executions. Any lack of transparency around the form or source of the drugs puts condemned prisoners at risk of being executed with drugs that either will not work as planned or will cause excruciating pain and suffering.
Many conservatives see secrecy as a sure sign of government tyranny. In this instance, I agree with them.
It is truly distressing to see so many public officials take questionable, if not illegal, actions to ensure that the state can take a life. (Missouri Attorney General, Chris Koster, has even spoken about the possibility of bringing back the gas chamber for executions as a way to avoid the lethal injection problem in his state.)
The turn toward expanding secrecy beyond the legitimate privacy concerns of individuals on an execution team and hiding the source of drugs for an execution disrupts any prospect for accountability that executing states are not violating the 8th Amendment which protects citizens from cruel and unusual punishment. If we are going to have the death penalty, then the courts and the public need to know all of the facts before an execution is carried out.
Tags: #lethal injection