Ohio joins growing number of states out of execution drug after EU boycottDeborah Denno in The Guardian (UK), September 26, 2013
The number of US states to run out of the drugs they use for executions is growing. Ohio has exhausted its supplies of pentobarbital, the powerful sedative it uses to execute prisoners, becoming the latest death penalty state to be hit by what amounts to a boycott on drug sales to US corrections departments.
Ohio expended its last viable doses of pentobarbital on Wednesday in killing Harry Mitts Jr, 61, sentenced to death for the 1994 shootings in Cleveland of a black man and a police officer. The state is unable to replenish its stocks of the drug after the sedative's manufacturer, Lundbeck in Denmark, imposed stringent restrictions on sales that prohibits distribution to prison institutions involved in executions.
The de facto boycott leaves Ohio, and a growing number of other death penalty states, in limbo, with no obvious alternative method of execution open to them. A spokesperson for the state's correction department told the Guardian that its execution protocol that governs the method of death is now likely to be changed in time for the next scheduled execution, of Ronald Phillips on 14 November. Any proposed change will be announced by Ohio by 4 October.
Despite its professed intention to continue executing prisoners, the harsh truth for Ohio is that no easy solution to the drugs drought is readily to be found. Arkansas, California, Georgia, Missouri, South Dakota and Texas are all in varying degrees of crisis.
The governor of Arkansas has suspended all executions until an alternative to its depleted stocks of pentobarbital could be found. California has announced it is dropping its three-drug lethal injection protocol but has not landed on a replacement.
Georgia and South Dakota are trying to skirt around the boycott by having execution drugs put together by compounding pharmacies, keeping the identities of those drug makers a "state secret". The use of compounding pharmacies, usually used to customise drugs for individual clients, has prompted a storm of criticism as the outlets are not regulated by federal authorities.
Texas, the most active of the 32 death penalty states with 15 executions last year, will run out of its stocks of pentobarbital this month – again, with no obvious substitute available. Missouri is leading the pack by turning to an entirely new drug as a hoped-for way around the shortages: it plans to use propofol, the drug on which Michael Jackson overdosed, for the first time in an execution on 23 October.
The rapidly spreading drought in drugs – imposed largely as a result of a European Union boycott on the sale of sedatives to US prisons in protest against their use in judicial killings – represents the greatest practical challenge to the death penalty in America since the practice was halted by the supreme court in 1972. "This is a moratorium by default," said Deborah Denno, an expert on execution methods at Fordham university law school.
"Departments of corrections are panicking because they have scheduled executions that need to take place, and no way to carry them out. Nobody is going to go back to the old ways of lethal gas or the electric chair," she said.