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January 29, 2011

AP finds most states running out of drugs for lethal injection executions

As detailed in this AP article, headlined "Most capital punishment states have run out of key injection drug, or will soon," some states may need to start looking for new ways to execute condemned murderers.  Here are the basics:

Most of the 35 U.S. states with capital punishment have run out of a key lethal injection drug or will soon, according to an Associated Press review.  And in many places, switching to another drug could prove a difficult, drawn-out process, fraught with legal challenges from death row that could put executions on hold.

The drug, an anesthetic called sodium thiopental, has become so scarce over the past year that a few states have had to postpone executions.  Those delays could become widespread across the country in the coming months because of a decision last week by the sole U.S. manufacturer to stop producing it.  States have begun casting about for new suppliers or substitute drugs. "We're wearing out our options," Mississippi Corrections Commissioner Chris Epps said.

Switching to another drug will take more than the stroke of a pen in most places: Several states have lengthy regulatory and review processes.  Moreover, any change in the drug used — or the supplier — could lead to lawsuits from inmates demanding proof that the substance will not cause suffering in violation of the U.S. Constitution's ban on cruel and unusual punishment.  Some inmates have already raised such arguments....

The AP review found that some states are well-stocked.  Nebraska has amassed 500 grams from a company in India, and it doesn't expire until 2012.  California, which has the nation's largest death row with 718 inmates and had to delay an execution last September in part because of the shortage of sodium thiopental, obtained from a British company 521 grams that won't expire until 2014.

Other states are in a more precarious position.  Texas' supply of 118 grams expires in March, and the nation's busiest execution state has two executions set for February, one in May and one in July.  Over the past decade, Texas has executed almost two dozen inmates a year on average.  Mississippi's cache of 12 grams and Missouri's 40-gram supply also expire in March.  While neither state has an execution scheduled, Missouri's highest court is considering requests to set execution dates for nine inmates, and Mississippi has one inmate who has exhausted his appeals....

Seventeen states that use the drug have no supply at all: Colorado, Connecticut, Delaware, Idaho, Indiana, Kansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, Maryland, Montana, Nevada, New Hampshire, North Carolina, Oregon, Utah, Washington and Wyoming.  None of those states has an execution scheduled.  The federal government and several states, including Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Illinois, Pennsylvania and Virginia, did not respond to the AP or refused to disclose details about their supply.

States don't have to look far for another option.  Pentobarbital, a surgical sedative that is sometimes employed in assisted suicides and is commonly used to destroy dogs and cats, was adopted by Oklahoma last year as part of its three-drug combination and has been used for three executions.  Ohio announced Tuesday it would become the first state to use pentobarbital all by itself to put inmates to death.

However, the use of pentobarbital in executions has yet to be reviewed by the U.S. Supreme Court, which last tackled the constitutionality of injection in 2008 when it approved the three-drug method.

In Kentucky, where the entire stockpile of sodium thiopental has expired, a switch requires an administrative process that typically lasts six months.  Similar hurdles exist in California, Maryland and Nebraska.  Even states that require only a prison official to sign off on a switch — including Texas, Ohio and Tennessee — could face a flurry of challenges.

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January 29, 2011 at 09:10 AM | Permalink


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When, as is true in this country, the electorate, Congress and the courts approve of the death penalty, the idea that it will be put out of business with a gimmick about drug availability is, uh, quaint.

Posted by: Bill Otis | Jan 30, 2011 2:44:46 AM

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