Four states that are trying - and failing - to find a more humane way to kill
US support for the death penalty is at its lowest in 40 years in Gallop’s annual poll. At 60%, it’s dipped lower than the poll taken a month after Georgia's execution of Troy Davis in 2011. And its not surprising, with Maryland joining those outlawing the death penalty, and several states being forced to scramble to get the drugs they need to kill their prisoners “humanely.”
Of course, there is no humane way to deliberately kill a human being; it’s a fundamentally inhumane act. Pharmaceutical companies and health professionals continue to resist being dragged into this degrading quagmire. But U.S. states keep trying.
On Oct. 15, Florida executed William Happ with a chemical cocktail that included a new and untested execution drug, midazolam hydrochloride. Happ had rejected legal efforts to save his life.
“Happ appeared to remain conscious for a longer time and made more body movements than prisoners executed under a previous formula.”
Missouri (which briefly flirted with the idea of bringing back the gas chamber) had also planned to use a new execution drug this month: propofol. But Fresenius Kabi, the German company that manufactured their supply of the drug, demanded that it be returned. On Oct. 10 (World Day Against the Death Penalty), Missouri announced it would comply with the company’s wishes.
Less than two weeks later, Missouri proclaimed it would be using a different execution drug –pentobarbital – to be acquired from a “compounding” pharmacy.
Compounding pharmacies put together pharmaceutical concoctions on a small scale without oversight of the FDA. Last year, a compounding pharmacy was the source of an outbreak of fungal meningitis that infected over 700 people and killed 61 people.
Texas has also turned to compounding pharmacies for its killing needs. In early October, the pharmacist who provided Texas with its execution drug demanded it back (after being outed by the press). Texas, of course, flatly refused
And lastly, on October 28, Ohio, having failed to find a cooperative compounding pharmacy, announced it would be using another different, untested execution cocktail. According to the Christian Science Monitor:
“Ohio says it will use a combination of the drugs midazolam, a sedative, andhydromorphone, a painkiller, in the execution of Ronald Phillips, scheduled for Nov. 14. The state said on Monday that it had looked for a compounding pharmacy as an alternative pentobarbital supplier but had been unsuccessful.”
So, is all this fervent activity heading somewhere, or does it amount to rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic?
The Attorney General of Arkansas, a death penalty supporter, admitted to the National Journal:
“Our system is completely broken, and I don’t know how to say it more bluntly than that. It’s a complete impossibility. I can no more flap my arms and fly across the state than I can carry out an execution.”
The U.S. death penalty is floundering for a variety of reasons, not least of which is the growing awareness that errors can go uncorrected and lead to executions of the innocent. But the fundamental cruelty of executions is not lost on people either - that’s the reason states stopped using the electric chair.
The medicalisation of executions has not made them less cruel (nor could it have), and it seems likely that those in the field of medicine will continue to object to their profession being tainted in this way. More months like this October are probably on the horizon.
Our blogs are written by Amnesty International staff, volunteers and other interested individuals, to encourage debate around human rights issues. They do not necessarily represent the views of Amnesty International.