States Scramble to Find New Ways to Kill People

Ohio is running out of its stock of pentobarbital, the drug it uses to kill people on death row. And it is not alone.

This photo taken May 16, 2013, shows an electric chair on exhibit at the Texas Prison Museum in Huntsville, Texas. Between 1924 and 1964, 361 men died in the electric chair.
National Journal
Brian Resnick
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Brian Resnick
Aug. 16, 2013, 8:24 a.m.

It’s a really odd prob­lem to have. Ohio is run­ning out of the drug it uses to kill con­victs on death row, the sed­at­ive pento­bar­bit­al. Com­bined with a cock­tail of muscle para­lyz­ers, and heart-stop­ping drugs, pento­bar­bit­al is the first step in a series of in­jec­tions that states con­sider to be an eth­ic­al way of killing a per­son.

Re­u­ters re­ports that Ohio has filed with a fed­er­al court its in­ten­tions to find a re­place­ment for pento­bar­bit­al by Oc­to­ber 4, so that the new death cock­tail will be ready for a sched­uled Novem­ber 14 ex­e­cu­tion.

Ohio is not alone in the death-drug scramble. Texas, too, is run­ning out of the drug, and re­portedly has only enough to last through Au­gust. Mis­souri is also in a scramble and plans to re­place its stock with propo­fol — the drug that is most fam­ous for killing Mi­chael Jack­son. (The Mis­souri Su­preme Court just days ago gave the go ahead to start us­ing it.)

So why the short­age? Short an­swer: No com­pany really wants to be in the busi­ness of mak­ing death drugs. In 2011, the Dan­ish drug man­u­fac­turer that makes pento­bar­bit­al de­clared it would no longer sell its stock for use in cap­it­al pun­ish­ment. The European Uni­on even im­posed sanc­tions against selling death drugs to the United States. No U.S. man­u­fac­turer has syn­thes­ized leth­al in­jec­tion drugs since 2011. And in April 2012, a fed­er­al judge blocked the im­port of so­di­um thi­opent­al, a sim­il­ar drug, all to­geth­er.

Fa­cing short­ages, Geor­gia passed a Leth­al In­jec­tion Secrecy Act, which keeps the names of com­pan­ies that cre­ate death-pen­alty drugs, well, secret. The law would al­low the com­pan­ies to use what are called “com­pound­ing phar­ma­cies,” which make drugs on spec, and rely on the secrecy to pro­tect their em­ploy­ees. As Geor­gia’s as­sist­ant at­tor­ney gen­er­al re­layed to NPR news:

There’s a good reas­on for the state to pro­tect man­u­fac­tur­ers’ iden­tit­ies, she says.

“Once that com­pound­ing phar­macy’s iden­tity is re­vealed, how will the De­part­ment of Cor­rec­tions ever get an­oth­er com­pound­ing phar­macy to sell to us?” Gra­ham asks. “Cer­tainly, how will we get a doc­tor know­ing that he is go­ing to be, or she is go­ing to be, dragged in­to court?”

The law was chal­lenged re­cently in a death-pen­alty case, for al­low­ing cruel and un­usu­al pun­ish­ment. A man was set to die, but it was known that the state had run out of pento­bar­bit­al. So what was the state go­ing to use to do the deed? That, un­der the law, was a state secret. The mat­ter is still un­der re­view.

So, in sum­mary, here is the state of leth­al in­jec­tion in Amer­ica: No Amer­ic­an com­pany man­u­fac­tures the drugs, no in­ter­na­tion­al com­pany will sell to us, no phar­ma­ceut­ic­al out­let wants to be seen man­u­fac­tur­ing the drugs, states are re­sort­ing to secret con­coc­tions and rush­ing to find new leth­al com­bin­a­tions. Per­haps it won’t be a law that makes ex­e­cu­tions a thing of the past in Amer­ica. Maybe, it will just be the mar­ket.

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