Death Penalty

Nationwide lethal-injection drug shortage forces states to experiment with executions


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Due to a nationwide shortage of approved lethal injection drugs, states have had to scramble to come up with ways to execute inmates.

According to the Washington Post, Tuesday’s botched execution of Clayton Lockett in Oklahoma was just one example of a state having to improvise due to a lack of lethal injection drugs. The Post reports that the drug shortage has been caused by pharmaceutical companies refusing to sell the requisite drugs to states due to legal challenges, as well as a fear of being ostracized by the medical community.

Citing the Death Penalty Information Center, the Post reported that 32 states and the federal government still have the death penalty, and all of them use lethal injection to put condemned prisoners to death. The American Board of Anesthesiologists and the American Medical Association have both come out publicly against their members participating in executions; anesthesiologists risk having their certifications revoked for doing so.

Due to the drug shortage, some states have turned to a widely available sedative, midazolam. The use of midazolam has been controversial, however. Last October, Florida used it as part of its drug cocktail to put convicted murderer and rapist William Happ to death. The Associated Press reported that Happ “remained conscious longer and made more body movements after losing consciousness than other people executed recently by lethal injection under the old formula.” In January, midazolam was used in Ohio on convicted rapist and murderer Dennis McGuire. According to the Post, McGuire gasped for air for 10 minutes and took nearly 30 minutes to die. It was the longest execution since Ohio reinstated the death penalty in 1999.

Other states have had to resort to cloak-and-dagger methods to obtain approved drugs. The Post reports that some state prison officials have used back-channel communications to get drugs from other states, while others have made cash payoffs to unregulated pharmaceutical companies.

In Oklahoma, the drug combination used on Lockett (which included midazolam) had never been used before. During his execution, Lockett thrashed on the gurney for several minutes before dying of a massive heart attack 43 minutes after the process began. The botched execution has led to renewed calls for a national death penalty moratorium. Oklahoma Governor Mary Fallin, meanwhile, has convened a panel to investigate what went wrong. Fallin also stayed a second execution that was scheduled to begin two hours after Lockett’s—that of Charles Warner.

“States are trying out new lethal-injection cocktails, and there is inadequate training and supervision and oversight of execution teams,” said David Waisel, an associate professor of anesthesia at Harvard Medical School, to the Post. “Given these recurring problems with lethal injections, if I had to be executed, I would choose a firing squad.”

Related article:

ABAJournal.com: “Oklahoma inmate dies of heart attack after botched execution; second scheduled execution postponed”

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