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States are resorting to elaborate steps to obtain lethal injection drugs, report says

Posted Mar 10, 2014 2:33 PM CDT
By Mark Hansen

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Death penalty states are taking elaborate steps to secure drugs for use in lethal injections, USA Today reports.

Prison officials from one state traveled to another to exchange muscle relaxants for sedatives; prison officials in another state drove to an out-of-state pharmacy with $11,000 in cash to buy execution drugs; and prison officials in a third state have explored the possibility of obtaining sedatives from a veterinary school, the story says.

Such developments have come in response to the growing shortage of drugs in the three-drug protocol used in executions: an anesthetic to render the condemned unconscious; a muscle relaxant to keep him or her still; and finally a chemical to stop the heart, according to the story.

Some manufacturers and pharmacies—particularly in Europe, where capital punishment is almost nonexistent—have cut off the supply of such drugs for executions because of opposition to the death penalty. As a result, prison officials in death-penalty states have resorted to sharing drugs, buying them from underregulated pharmacies or using drug combinations never previously used to put people to death, the story says.

The situation has created what the newspaper calls a "Wild West" scramble for lethal injection drugs among death penalty states.

It comes at a time when the death penalty in this country is in decline, the story says. The number of executions has dropped from nearly 100 in 1999 to 39 last year. New death sentences are also down, from 315 in 1996 to 80 in 2013.

Legal challenges to the death penalty are also flooding the courts, further complicating efforts to execute people in death penalty states, the story says.

Ohio State University law professor Douglas A. Berman, who cited the story at his Sentencing Law and Policy blog, says death-penalty proponents are probably more troubled by the situation than death-penalty abolitionists are. But he says abolitionists are probably also troubled by how hard some states are trying to move forward with untried methods for conducting executions.

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