US states search for new lethal injection drugs

Deborah Denno in Agence France-Presse, January 27, 2011

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By Lucile Malandain (AFP) – 11 hours ago

WASHINGTON — Stunned by a company's decision to stop production of a drug used for lethal injections, American death-penalty states are struggling to find alternatives, and have seen a slowdown in the number of executions.

"Many states are having to change their method of execution -- that means regulatory changes that have to be approved and then there are court challenges that can delay it," Richard Dieter, executive director of the Washington DC-based Death Penalty Information Center told AFP.

"All of that will take time," and many executions will be delayed, he said. "In quite a few states, this is going to take months if not a year to arrive at what's the new method, has it been proved or checked? Is it humane? Are there going to be possible side effects to these drugs?"

States began turning to lethal injections in the 1980s, replacing electric chairs and firing squads. Now, one of the three products given intravenously to those condemned to death will no longer be produced on American soil.

Illinois-based Hospira, the only company that produced sodium thiopental, approved by the US Supreme Court for executions, announced Friday that it has stopped production.

It hoped to make the product at its factory in Italy, but faced pressure from Italian authorities who wanted a guarantee that the anesthetic wouldn't be used in executions. Hospira said it could not make that promise and decided to stop production for fear of legal action.

Now, each of the 35 states practicing capital punishment will have to change their protocols.

But some have already tried since last summer, when there was a shortage of thiopental. Arizona imported thiopental from Great Britain, then supplied one of its neighbor, California, according to public documents.

Sodium thiopental is part of a three-drug cocktail normally used to execute death row inmates. It effectively puts the person to sleep, before a dose of pancuronium bromide paralyzes the muscles and potassium chloride stops respiration.

Oklahoma decided to use pentobarbital, a drug normally used to euthanize animals, as a substitute. Ohio announced Tuesday that it is switching to pentobarbital, and will become the first state to use the drug alone, without the other two drugs.

"Anesthetic for animals: those cause people to step back and wonder," said Dieter, a leader in the anti-death penalty movement.

"But in reality, the veterinary procedures are more advanced that what are used on human beings here in the United States," he continued. "I think for courts and legislatures, they're going to say this is actually a more humane method than we've been using so it's the better way to go."

Seen as the ideal alternative, pentobarbital however may create new obstacles, said Deborah Denno, a lethal injection expert, pointing out that Oklahoma bought the drug in Denmark.

But she said that there is a controversy in Denmark, which, like all of the countries in the European Union, doesn't practice the death penalty.

"The bottom line is that states are pretty much pressed up against the wall with this, they have nowhere to turn and every time they try to go someplace, they're encountering difficulties and the major difficulty, it seems even in the pentobarbital case, is that in one way or another, the US is depending on anti-death penalty countries as sources for these drugs," said Denno, a law professor at Fordham University in New York.

"Oklahoma seemed like the savior!" for states short of thiopental, she quipped.

The supply problem could have a snowball effect, the experts said, as attention is refocused on issues including wrongly convicted people on death row, or the cost of capital punishment during an economic crisis.

As evidence, they pointed to the January 11 vote in Illinois, where lawmakers passed legislation to abolish the death penalty. The Democratic governor Pat Quinn has yet to sign it into law.