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May 20, 2015

Has death penalty administration now become a "testing ground for toxic drugs"?

The question in the title of this post is prompted by the subheadline of this lengthy new New Republic piece: "Lethal Entanglements: Lethal injection was supposed to be a cleaner, more humane version of capital punishement. Over the past five years, it has become a messy, largely unmonitored testing ground for toxic drugs."  Here are is a passage from the center of the lengthy article:

Lethal injection was first adopted in Oklahoma in 1977 as a less violent alternative to the gas chamber and the electric chair. Over the next 25 years, almost every death-penalty state copied Oklahoma’s three-drug formula: first the barbiturate sodium thiopental to knock the prisoner out, then the paralytic pancuronium bromide to immobilize him, and finally potassium chloride to stop his heart.  The second and third drugs would cause intense suffering on their own, but the Supreme Court ruled that the method was constitutional in Baze: As long as the thiopental rendered the prisoner unconscious, he would be insensate to the agonizing effects of the next two drugs.  Just one year after the Baze decision, though, in late 2009, the pharmaceutical company that sold thiopental to every death-penalty state, Hospira, reported a shortage.

As a consequence, the death penalty has undergone in the past five years its biggest transformation since states began switching to lethal injection decades ago.  As thiopental disappeared, states began executing prisoners with experimental one-, two-, or three-drug cocktails.  States have essentially been improvising what is supposed to be one of their gravest and most deliberate duties, venturing deep into the shadows to carry out executions.  They have turned to mail-order pharmaceutical suppliers and used untested drugs.  They have sidestepped federal drug laws, minimized public disclosure, and, on multiple occasions, announced changes to execution protocols just hours before prisoners were set to die.  The machinery of death in the United States has become a kluge.

In April, the Supreme Court acknowledged this when it heard oral arguments in Glossip v. Gross.  A group of prisoners from Oklahoma — including Richard Glossip, a convicted murderer — challenged the state’s use of a drug called midazolam because they feared it would not anesthetize them.  The court had hoped Baze would obviate future lethal injection lawsuits, but the thiopental shortage had stripped the decision of any practical relevance almost as soon as it was issued. Now, just seven years later, the justices were considering whether they should invalidate a specific method of execution for the first time in U.S. history.  The court’s decision won’t overturn the death penalty, but it will define the way we practice it for years to come.

Though the challenge comes from Oklahoma, it is Arizona that provides the best case study of the rapid, slipshod evolution of lethal injection since Baze. The desert state hasn’t executed the most prisoners since the thiopental shortage began — that distinction belongs, as always, to Texas — but it has used more methods than any other state, killing prisoners with four different drug combinations.  No other state has been quite so dogged in its determination to carry out executions. And no other state has left so detailed a paper trail.  Judges, lawyers, and journalists (most notably Michael Kiefer at The Arizona Republic) have brought much of the abuses to light over the years, but the story has been told in disparate pieces: a deposition here, an uncovered email there. The complete narrative is more troubling than any one of its components.

May 20, 2015 at 01:11 PM | Permalink

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Comments

These are not drugs. The use of that word is quite misleading, and unfortunate. These are poisons intended to kill a person. They are not drugs for the treatment of a disease.

Posted by: Supremacy Claus | May 23, 2015 7:43:48 AM

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