The Death Penalty’s Death-Knell

Sodium thiopental to render the individual unconscious, pancuronium bromide to relax the muscles, potassium chloride to stop the heart. For years, this was the cocktail used by the United States to execute prisoners. Since its creation in the early 1980s, the 3-drug-mix had been used to kill over 1,000 inmates in 35 states. However, in 2009, the only remaining US manufacturer of sodium thiopental moved production to Italy, which, as an anti-death penalty country, subsequently banned the export of the drug to the United States. The sodium thiopental shortage sent death-penalty states scrambling: executions were delayed in Arizona, California, Georgia, and Oklahoma. States swapped supplies of the drug amongst themselves or looked for a source abroad, in India and even Pakistan. Several states turned to England, where they were able to obtain a non-FDA approved dosage of sodium thiopental, but that relationship soon soured when England (which also does not support capital punishment) banned the export to the United States. The DEA even went so far as to seize samples of the British drug from a few states, concerned with the illegal measures used to obtain it.

Faced with the mounting international sanctions on the export of sodium thiopental, the United States decided on a new method of execution: single doses of the sedative pentobarbital. Pentobarbital’s original usage—in much, much smaller doses—is the treatment of epileptic seizures. It is much slower to act, and, many would argue, much less effective than sodium thiopental. The death process is markedly slower with pentobarbital—20 minutes to a half hour, as compared to 3 to 4 minutes. It is the same drug that is used to euthanize animals in the United States, but when it is carried out on your elderly cat, protocol mandates that the animal is unconscious before the lethal injection—the state of California actually considers the injection of an animal with pentobarbital while still awake a crime.

Besides the distressing fact that we regulate the euthanization of animals with more care than that of humans, the shortage of execution drugs has forced states to become far more improvisatory with their death-penalty policies than they should. Last October, in South Dakota, Eric Robert was executed with a dose of pentobarbital. The drug had been produced by a compounding pharmacy – a service which allows drugs to be made up to order, therefore permitting the buyer to bypass mainstream pharmaceutical suppliers which face stricter regulation. Eric’s eyes opened during the lethal injection itself, a sign that the drug was not working in the way that it was intended. An investigation later revealed that the batch of pentobarbital used to kill him had been contaminated with fungus.

Just last month, the state of Georgia made an attempt to rush the execution of two prisoners—including Warren Hill, who has an IQ of 70—before their last batch of pentobarbital expired on March 1. Hill’s execution was temporarily stayed, but the second prisoner, Andrew Allen Cook, was executed on February 21st; he had the dubious distinction of being the first inmate executed with the one-drug procedure in the state.

When asked last month, the state of Georgia had no idea where they were going to obtain more pentobarbital after their stock expired. There aren’t enough executions annually to make the production of a new drug profitable, and the increasing international scrutiny isn’t going to ease up. Additionally, the comparative slowness with which pentobarbital kills has led numerous attorneys to argue that the execution process is now cruel and unusual punishment.

While I find the implementation of capital punishment to be entirely indefensible on moral grounds, it seems as though the death penalty’s death- knell is far more likely to be rung by pharmaceuticals, not our higher consciences.

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