Mississippi will likely switch to a different drug for its next execution due to a nationwide shortage of one of the chemicals it has used in the past, authorities said Tuesday.
Attorney General Jim Hood said Mississippi “most likely will” use pentobarbital in the state’s next execution. Hood asked the Mississippi Supreme Court this week to set an April 20 execution date for Robert Simon Jr. The court didn’t immediately act on the request. Hood also said he could ask the court in the coming weeks to set execution dates for two other condemned inmates.
Mississippi has used a three-drug mixture for its lethal injections in the past, but one of those chemicals, an anesthetic called sodium thiopental, is in short supply. Sodium thiopental is one of the most common execution drugs used in the U.S., but the nationwide shortage has forced states to consider other options.
Some states have already decided to use pentobarbital, a surgical sedative that is commonly used to euthanize animals.
Hood said Mississippi is still trying to get sodium thiopental from other states, but so far that hasn’t happened. He said Mississippi officials may have no choice but to switch to another drug, and that would be probably be pentobarbital.
“We’re still looking into using this other substance (sodium thiopental), but we aren’t really confident that we’re going to get some,” he said.
Texas and Oklahoma recently announced the switch to pentobarbital, and plan to use it along with two other drugs. Ohio became the first state to use pentobarbital alone when it executed an inmate with the drug March 10.
Hood said Mississippi would substitute pentobarbital for sodium thiopental in the three-drug cocktail that has been used in the past.
Mississippi statute calls for the use of “a lethal quantity of an ultra-short-acting barbiturate or other similar drug in combination with a chemical paralytic agent,” said Mississippi Department of Corrections spokeswoman Tara Booth.
“The final details have not been decided yet,” Booth said.
Hood said his staff is studying other states’ use of pentobarbital in hopes that Mississippi won’t get bogged down in legal challenges if it begins using the drug. Court rulings in favor of pentobarbital in other states could be used as the basis for legal arguments in Mississippi. Hood said the use of pentobarbital has been upheld in federal court when it was challenged by an Oklahoma inmate.
Hood filed a request Monday for an April 20 execution date for Simon, who was sentenced to death for the 1990 killing of a married couple and their 12-year-old son. The U.S. Supreme Court had denied Simon’s appeal earlier in the day.
Two other Mississippi death row inmates who have petitions pending before the U.S. Supreme Court could find out in the next few weeks if the justices will take up their cases. If the U.S. Supreme Court decides not to hear those appeals, Hood said he will seek an April 27 execution date for Rodney Gray and one for Benny Joe Stevens on May 4.
Stevens was convicted of killing a couple and two children in 1998. Gray was convicted of the 1994 kidnapping, rape and shooting death of a 79-year-old woman.
Mississippi isn’t the only state dealing with the fallout from the shortage of sodium thiopental since the main U.S. supplier stopped making it.
Attorneys in Kentucky, Georgia and Arizona want the U.S. Justice Department to investigate how those states got supplies of sodium thiopental. Drug Enforcement Administration officials said about a week ago they had seized Georgia’s supply of the drug. A public defender for a Kentucky death row inmate also wants the Justice Department to determine if the state’s contacts with a pharmaceutical company in India were handled properly.
Just weeks before Mississippi’s last executions — the first back-to-back executions in nearly 50 years — officials were scrambling to find enough sodium thiopental to carry out the sentences. The executions were carried out as scheduled after the state found a pharmacy willing to give it the drug.
Hood wrote a letter to Hospira Inc. last April, asking if he could do anything to help expedite a shipment of sodium thiopental because the state didn’t have enough for two executions, scheduled the following month.
The company declined, saying it doesn’t support the use of its products in capital punishment and that manufacturing had halted in 2009 because of “manufacturing difficulties.”
The Mississippi Department of Corrections eventually got the drug from a pharmacist who doesn’t want to be identified, officials said.