Delaware courts: States scramble for solution to shortage of drug used in executions

As a Sussex County jury begins to hear evidence Monday about whether Derrick Powell should be sentenced to die for the murder of Georgetown Patrolman Chad Spicer, Delaware is unable to carry out any executions because of a worldwide shortage of one of the drugs used in lethal injection here.

Attorney General Beau Biden, late last month, joined 12 other attorneys general in writing to the U.S. Justice Department seeking help because many states have run out of an anesthetic called sodium thiopental. The chances of getting more also are limited because the drug’s sole U.S. manufacturer decided to stop producing it.

“Sodium thiopental is in very short supply worldwide and, for various reasons, essentially unavailable on the open market,” they wrote. “Therefore, we solicit your assistance in either identifying an appropriate source … or making supplies held by the federal government available to the states.”

At least one California execution had to be called off because the state had exhausted its supply of the drug.

“There are so many victims that have kind of been put on hold during their grief process because of this issue,” victims’ advocate Debra Puglisi Sharp said. “It just makes me angry that we continue to have these delays in death-penalty cases and have families agonizing over the situation.”

Executions in Delaware had been held up for the past five years because of a class-action lawsuit filed by the Federal Community Defender’s office in Philadelphia, alleging the state’s way of carrying them out amounted to unconstitutionally cruel and unusual punishment. A U.S. District Court judge and the U.S. 3rd Circuit Court of Appeals ultimately rejected those arguments and the case came to an end in October when the U.S. Supreme Court declined to hear an appeal.

Delaware’s latest problems started in January, when the pharmaceutical company Hospira, the sole U.S. manufacturer of sodium thiopental, announced it will no longer produce the drug. The company had intended to shift production to Italy, but Italian authorities would allow such production only if the company did not allow correctional systems in the United States to use it for capital punishment.



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