Failure to execute

Drug shortage needlessly mires lethal injections in controversy

The 3,000 U.S. prisoners on death row used many methods to kill, torture or maim their victims.

Yet when their day of reckoning comes, final justice likely will come in the same form it has for the past 30 years – a needle prick followed by a sedation from which they will not wake.

So it should strike Americans as odd that the relatively humane and seemingly straightforward process used to carry out their execution – lethal injection – has become so needlessly controversial and administratively unwieldy that some states are considering bringing back execution methods such as firing squads, electrocutions and gas chambers.

The hubris starts with the scarcity of the drugs used in the lethal injection process. Sodium thiopental, a barbiturate anesthetic used to render the condemned unconscious in the traditional “three-drug protocol,” is no longer made in the U.S., and its European manufacturers have refused its export to America for capital punishment.

As a result, many states switched to a “one-drug protocol” in which the condemned are given lethal levels of another barbiturate anesthetic, pentobarbital. But its European manufacturer, too, banned export to the U.S. after learning it was being used in executions.

This has led states – most recently Georgia and Missouri – to seek alternative sources of pentobarbital through compounding pharmacies whose identities are being controversially kept secret to shield them from harassment. Other states are switching to pancuronium bromide, a muscle relaxant previously used as a component in a three-drug protocol.

Regardless, the drug deviations have provided attorneys for the condemned with a convenient loophole to challenge whether the new protocols carry side effects that could be considered cruel and unusual.

The number of U.S. executions has declined in recent years – from a peak of 98 in 1999 to 39 last year, a sign of the complications created by drug scarcity.

In Georgia, the state high court is determining whether death row inmate Warren Hill’s attorneys will be granted a review of the pentobarbital the state plans to use in his lethal injection. The execution of Hill, convicted for murdering a fellow inmate while serving a life sentence for killing his girlfriend, was granted a stay last year by a Fulton County Superior Court judge over questions about the drug’s “safety.”

Safety? Are we practicing medicine, or executing inmates?

Death penalty opponents, who ultimately want a moratorium on all lethal injections, are using the recent executions of Dennis McGuire in Ohio and Michael Lee Wilson in Oklahoma as examples where new drug combinations may have resulted in inhumane punishment.

McGuire, 53, convicted of raping and killing a pregnant newlywed in 1989, took 26 minutes to die and gasped repeatedly during his procedure. The final words of Wilson, 38, convicted of beating a convenience store clerk to death with a baseball bat, were: “I feel my whole body burning.”

There are hundreds, if not thousands, of U.S.-sourced painkillers, sedatives and paralyzing agents that can kill. It shouldn’t be so difficult for states to find them and use them.

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