A quarter of the United States’ attorneys general, seven Democrats and six Republicans hailing largely from western and southern states,have asked U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder for assistance from the Department of Justice in procuring sodium thiopental, the anesthetic most commonly used in executions.
Death penalty retentionist states have had trouble obtaining the drug since the sole U.S. manufacturer of thiopental stopped producing it and abolitionist European countries have made exporting it for executions nearly impossible.
The attorneys general asked Holder for help in “either identifying an appropriate source for sodium thiopental or making supplies held by the Federal Government available to the States.”
Recently two prisoners from Georgia and one from Arizona were put to death using thiopental purchased last year through a dingy, questionable pharmaceutical wholesaler in London by the name of Dream Pharma. It was reported that all three men – Emmanuel Hammond, Brandon Rhode, and Jeffrey Landrigan – were visibly conscious during their executions, having opened their eyes minutes after being injected with the defective anesthetic, and presumably experienced excruciating pain while pancuronium bromide was used to paralyze them and potassium chloride induced cardiac arrest. This aberration of justice amounts to torture and is most certainly in opposition to the Eight Amendment to the Constitution, which is supposed to protect prisoners from cruel and unusual punishment.
As reported here earlier, attorneys in the U.S. are suing the FDA for allowing the drug into the country without review; across the pond, Reprieve, an international death penalty abolition organization, has filed a legal challenge against the U.K.’s Medicines and Healthcare Products Regulatory Authority (MHRA). In its court action, Reprieve seeks to recall the thiopental supplied by Dream Pharma, which, if successful, would prevent U.S. corrections officials from unwittingly torturing condemned inmates as they did in Georgia and Arizona, by effectively halting executions in the states that purchased the ineffective drug from the one-man pharmaceutical supplier, including California, which bought enough degraded thiopental to botch over 85 executions.
An anesthesiologist at Columbia hospital in New York and expert witness in Reprieve’s lawsuit against the MHRA, Dr. Mark Heath, describes the recent executions in Georgia and Arizona as being “highly atypical…based on my studies of lethal injection, it is very unusual and surprising for a prisoner’s eyes to remain open after the efficacious administration of thiopental.” Heath makes clear that using defective sodium thiopental ensures an agonizing death for inmates, who endure “asphyxiation caused by pancuronium and the caustic burning sensation caused by potassium.”
While people will continue to debate the death penalty’s merits for many years, there is no question that subjecting prisoners to this brand of torture goes against an array of international human rights treaties and those rights protecting against cruel and unusual punishment guaranteed to all Americans by the U.S. Constitution. To use one more gram of these tainted thiopental stocks from overseas would call into question states’ abilities to ensure that justice can ever be fairly and reliably served.
Zac Stone Guest blogger on DPF