Ohio is latest state switching drugs for executions

Deborah Denno in Reuters, January 25, 2011

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By Mary Wisniewski
13 mins ago
CHICAGO (Reuters) – Ohio is the latest state in the U.S. to switch drugs for executions, after a U.S. company bowed to European Union pressure and stopped making a preferred drug.

U.S. states that allow the death penalty are scrambling to line up an alternative following the announcement by Hospira Inc. of Illinois last week that it would stop making sodium thiopental, an anesthetic used for lethal injections.

The company discontinued production of the drug because Italy objected to the manufacture of a drug used in executions at a Hospira plant there. Italy is a member of the EU, which banned the death penalty and criticizes the U.S. for it.

Ohio said it will start using pentobarbital, which is often used to euthanize pets, for the scheduled execution of Johnnie Baston in March. The execution of Frank Spisak scheduled for February 17 will use existing supplies of sodium thiopental, according to the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction.

Oklahoma was the first state to switch to the animal drug late last year because of short supplies of sodium thiopental, and has now used it in three executions without incident.

"Ohio's move is predictable but disturbing," said Fordham University Law Professor Deborah W. Denno, a death penalty expert, referring to criticism of using the alternative drug. "It is regrettable that Ohio is blindly following in Oklahoma's muddy footsteps."

Texas, which executes more prisoners than any other state, said it has enough sodium thiopental for two executions scheduled in February but will have to seek an alternative after that.

Texas and Missouri said the sodium thiopental supplies on hand have March expiration dates. Missouri is scheduled to execute Martin Link on February 9.

Some death row inmates and opponents of the death penalty are trying to slow executions because of the drug controversy.

Attorneys for death row inmate Emmanuel Hammond, scheduled to be executed later on Tuesday, tried unsuccessfully to get a delay by saying the supply of sodium thiopental in Georgia could be counterfeit or inferior, according to court documents.

The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) said Missouri should rewrite its executions procedures because sodium thiopental is being discontinued.

"This drug is a key element of the execution procedure," said Tony Rothert, Legal Director of the ACLU of Eastern Missouri. "In order to conduct executions without it, the Department of Corrections would have to develop a new protocol.

(Additional reporting by Ben Fenwick in Oklahoma City, Jim Forsyth in San Antonio, Kim Palmer in Cleveland, David Beasley in Atlanta and Bruce Olson in St. Louis; Editing by Greg McCune)