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Prisoners Face New Batch of Untested Lethal Injection Drugs

Amid ongoing legal battles over experimental drugs, states continue to use injections known to cause suffering

Jacob Chamberlain, staff writer
March against the death penalty, Genève 2010 (Cécile Thimoreau / World Coalition Against the Death Penalty / Flickr / Creative Commons license)

March against the death penalty, Genève 2010 (Cécile Thimoreau / World Coalition Against the Death Penalty / Flickr / Creative Commons license)

The rising use of experimental and untested drugs in the execution of U.S. prisoners reached new heights Monday as Oklahoma officials admitted plans to use a new drug combination to execute two men this month.

In an email sent to state attorneys, the state said it will be using a combination of midazolam, pancuronium bromide and potassium chloride in the executions, which has never been used before. Similar untested drug combinations have been criticized by human rights campaigners as inhumane and have been documented to cause extreme pain and suffering before death.

Richard Dieter, executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center, told the Guardian that the three-drug combination is similar to what has been used in Florida and Ohio in recent executions.

A similar cocktail of drugs used in January to execute Ohio prisoner Dennis McGuire left him struggling and gasping for air—an ordeal that lasted 26 minutes before McGuire died.

Ohio and other states have turned to compounding pharmacies to custom mix experimental drugs after major foreign drug companies began withholding lethal injection drugs from U.S. prisons in opposition to the death penalty.

In other cases the experimental drug pentobarbital was found to cause "severe, unnecessary, lingering and ultimately inhumane pain." Michael Lee Wilson, who was on death row in Oklahoma, said he could feel his "whole body burning" just seconds after receiving the lethal injection on January 9th.

Several states have succeeded in keeping the identities of these compounding pharmacies secret. However, as the Guardian reports, "an Oklahoma county district court judge ruled last week that a state law keeping the source of the drugs a secret is unconstitutional and denies the men their right to access the courts to argue against their own executions."

While the use of the death penalty is declining around the world over the long-term, recent reports showed the U.S. was the only country in the Americas to execute prisoners in 2013 and had the fifth highest number of executions in the world—39.

And in a report released last month, the United Nations Human Rights Committee warned that it is "concerned by the high number of persons wrongly sentenced to death," in the U.S..

The report also warned of stark racial disparities in the use of the death penalty in the U.S. that "affects disproportionately African Americans, exacerbated by the rule that discrimination has to be proven case-by-case."


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