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The Ugly Business of Lethal Injection

Attorneys trying to prevent the cruelty of a botched execution are challenging states' efforts to conduct experiments on their clients with new execution drugs.

The pretense of lethal injection as a peaceful and painless way to execute prisoners is unraveling, and this may change the face of the death penalty in the United States.

In September 2009, the state of Ohio tried to execute Romell Broom. The execution team, with Broom's cooperation and even assistance, poked and prodded him with needles for more than two hours but was unable to find a usable vein. It wasn't the first bungled lethal injection in Ohio, but it was the first to end with the inmate still alive. "Eager prosecutors and prison officials, with the support of compliant courts, have managed to keep death chambers active." (photo: World Coalition Against the Death Penalty)

Since 1977, states have adopted the Orwellian practice of staging executions to look like benign medical procedures. This charade was designed to obscure reality. But now botched executions, such as Broom's, and increasingly pointed objections from the pharmaceutical industry, have focused attention on the legally and ethically dubious ways lethal injection actually works.

In March 2010 Hospira Inc., the sole Food and Drug Administration-approved manufacturer of sodium thiopental, formally asked Ohio prison officials and other states not to use the drug for executions. This plea fell on deaf ears, so in January 2011 Hospira ceased its production.

A mad scramble for a new source ensued. But in a globalized pharmaceutical marketplace, the search for sodium thiopental collided with the rest of the world's growing opposition to the death penalty. Novartis, a Swiss-based drug company, quickly announced that it would prevent the export of its generic version of sodium thiopental to the United States.

Several states acquired it from Dream Pharma, a small distributor operating out of a driving school in London, but much of it was confiscated by the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency due to its questionable origins. Nebraska purchased its new sodium thiopental from Kayem, a supplier in India. Like Hospira and Novartis, Kayem tried to disassociate itself from lethal injection, stating that it would no longer sell the drug for use in executions, which it said aren't consistent with the "ethos of Hinduism." In the end Nebraska destroyed its newly purchased supply.

Without reliable sources of sodium thiopental, states have turned to a new anesthetic, pentobarbital, manufactured by Denmark-based Lundbeck. On June 23 of this year, Roy Blankenship was put to death in Georgia with Lundbeck's drug, even though the company had declared it was "not safe" and asked the Peach State not to use it. Pentobarbital, like sodium thiopental, is an anesthetic, and its purpose in executions is to render the prisoner unconscious so that the killing drugs that follow do not cause excruciating pain. Instead, Blankenship reacted strongly to this anesthetic, jerking his head, blinking rapidly, lunging and mouthing inaudible words.

Rather than halting executions temporarily to conduct a full investigation of what happened to Blankenship, the state responded to this debacle by agreeing to another death row inmate's demand that the next execution be videotaped. The inmate wanted to prove that this drug could cause pain and suffering.

This response illustrates the relentless enthusiasm with which Georgia and some other states pursue executions. Eager prosecutors and prison officials, with the support of compliant courts, have managed to keep death chambers active. There have been more than 90 executions since the bungled lethal injection attempt of Romell Broom.

But this may soon change. Attorneys trying to prevent the cruelty of a botched execution will continue to challenge states' efforts to conduct experiments on their clients with new execution drugs. In fact, states with small death rows and few executions, seeing costs but no benefits to being associated with such a sordid spectacle, will likely opt out by abolishing capital punishment outright, following the examples set by New Jersey, New Mexico, and Illinois.

Recent developments have permanently destroyed the myth of the humane execution. Lethal injection has been exposed as an ugly business, designed to divert attention from the even uglier reality that states are carrying out deliberate pre-meditated killings.

And in the end, that's what's wrong with capital punishment.

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