Executions

LETHAL INJECTION: New Execution Practices Raising Medical Concerns

Medical experts are concerned that untried lethal injection procedures in some states could cause prolonged, painful deaths. Ohio will try a procedure never used before in an execution on November 14 when it plans to inject a combination of the sedative midazolam and the painkiller hydromorphone. According to Dr. Jonathan Groner, a professor of clinical surgery at Ohio State University College of Medicine, a hydromorphone overdose can cause painful side effects, including an extreme burning sensation, seizures, hallucination, panic attacks, vomiting, and muscle pain. He said, "You're basically relying on the toxic side effects to kill people while guessing at what levels that occurs." Groner added, if the hydromorphone IV is set poorly, "it would be absorbed under the skin, subcutaneously, very slowly, and that death could be extremely prolonged…It may be painful, and it may take forever." Doctors also raised concerns about Missouri's planned use of pentobarbital from a compounding pharmacy. Compounding pharmacies are not regulated by the Food and Drug Administration, and drugs from one such pharmacy caused a deadly outbreak of fungal meningitis in 2012. David Waisel, an associate professor of anesthesiology at Harvard Medical School, said that contaminated pentobarbital could cause a sensation similar to rubbing an open wound with sandpaper. Florida was the first state to use midazolam, although it employed different secondary drugs than Ohio. In an October 15 execution, the inmate appeared to remain conscious longer than usual and made movements after losing consciousness.

Federal Court to Review Florida's Unique Execution Procedure

A federal court in Florida will review challenges to the state's new lethal injection procedure, which the state plans to use in an upcoming execution on November 12. Florida is the only state in the country to use this new protocol, which begins with the sedative midazolam, followed by a paralytic drug and potassium chloride. Attorneys for Florida death row inmates allege the process could result in severe pain in violation of the 8th Amendment. Megan McCracken, an attorney at the death penalty clinic at the University of California Berkeley School of Law, said, “If [potassium chloride is] given to a conscious person who has been inadequately anesthetized, it causes incredible pain because it activates nerve endings. It will feel like burning through the circulatory system until it reaches the heart, which it stops.” Florida switched to midazolam due to a shortage of pentobarbital, an anesthetic used in almost all executions over the past 2 years. Texas, which also has an execution scheduled for November 12, has obtained pentobarbital from a compounding pharmacy. It employs only 1 drug in its executions. Ohio recently announced it will use a new protocol involving midazolam and hydromorphone in its execution scheduled for November 14. That procedure is also under review in federal court.

LETHAL INJECTION: Many States Changing Lethal Injection Process

On October 4, Ohio announced it will be obtaining its execution drug, pentobarbital, from a compounding pharmacy if it is not available from the manufacturer. Texas made a similar announcement a few days earler. In the past, some compounding pharmacies have been implicated in providing contaminated drugs with fatal side effects. These local companies are not regulated by the Food and Drug Administration. Florida announced it will be using a new drug, midazolam, in its October 15 execution. The drug will be part of a 3-drug process and has never been used before in executions. The 3-drug process can be extremely painful if the first drug is not completely effective. Missouri intends to be the first state in the country to use the drug propofol in its October 23 execution, despite the fact that the drug company that delivered the drug has asked for its return. If Missouri goes ahead with the execution, European countries may impose restrictions on the exportation of this drug, thereby affecting other uses for vital surgeries in the U.S.  Finally, Tennessee will now use only a single drug, pentobarbital, in its executions, though it did not say where it hoped to obtain the drug.

What the Media Is Saying About DPIC's "The 2% Death Penalty"

2%Since DPIC released its new report, The 2% Death Penalty, on October 2, both national and international media have been reporting on its findings. The Washington Post noted, "Two percent of the counties in the country were responsible for [most] 685 of 1,320 executions from 1976, when the Supreme Court reinstated the death penalty, to 2012." The Los Angeles Times, quoted DPIC's Executive Director, "'The death penalty is not as American or as widespread as people might assume. It is clustered in a few counties,' said Richard Dieter, the group's executive director." Similar stories have appeared in CBS News, The Guardian (London), U.S. News & World Report, The Philadelphia Inquirer, The Columbus Dispatch, The National Journal, and many other outlets. Many stories echoed Stateline's emphasis on the burden that all taxpayers share because of the actions of a few counties: "After a death sentence is handed down, states are on the hook for paying for the prosecution and sometimes defense, as well as housing the inmate. Those costs are borne by the entire state, not just the counties that impose the death sentence." (Click on image to enlarge).

NEW DPIC REPORT: Only 2% of Counties Responsible for Majority of U.S. Death Penalty

On October 2 the Death Penalty Information Center released a new report, The 2% Death Penalty: How a Minority of Counties Produce Most Death Cases at Enormous Costs to All. The report shows that, contrary to the assumption that the death penalty is widely used in the U.S., only a few jurisdictions employ capital punishment extensively. Only 2% of the counties in the U.S. have been responsible for the majority of cases leading to executions since 1976. Likewise, only 2% of the counties are responsible for the majority of today’s death row population and recent death sentences. The report also noted that aggressive use of the death penalty in relatively few counties produces enormous costs that are shifted to the entire state. “This peculiar exercise of discretion results in enormous expenses being passed on to taxpayers across the state. Moreover, the correlation between the high use of the death penalty and a high rate of error means that courts in these states will be occupied for years with costly appeals and retrials. Some states have recently chosen to opt out of this process, at great savings to their taxpayers.”  For a video about the report, infographics, and more information, visit deathpenaltyinfo.org/twopercent.

BOOKS: "Grave Injustice: Unearthing Wrongful Executions"

Grave Injustice, a new book by Richard Stack, presents a critical examination of the death penalty through profiles of individuals who were executed but may have been innocent. Their stories are used to illustrate flaws in the death penalty, including faulty eyewitness identification, government misconduct, and ineffective representation. In examining these problems, Stack writes that the possible end of the death penalty "will not be based on its immorality...but on its poor track record... and its overwhelming lack of cost-effectiveness." In the second half of the book, the author profiles prominent individuals involved in this issue, including Sr. Helen Prejean and Martina Davis-Correia, the sister of Troy Davis, who was executed in 2011. Reviewer Mary Kelly Tate, Director of the Institute for Actual Innocence, said, "Stack uses his reportorial skills to distill the complex subject of the American death penalty into a digestible form, yet he never cuts corners with the human dimension."

LETHAL INJECTION: The Ongoing Controversy Over How People Are Executed

One of the nation's leading academic experts on the death penalty has written a new article describing how the controversy surrounding lethal injections has greatly intensified since the Supreme Court's ruling on the subject in 2008 (Baze v. Rees). Deborah Denno, a law professor at Fordham University, analyzed over 300 court decisions in the last five years citing Baze. She found there have been more changes in lethal injection protocols in that time than in the last 30 years, some of which have made matters worse. "The resulting protocols," she wrote, "differ from state to state, and even from one execution to the next within the same state," scarcely resembling those evaluated by the Supreme Court. As a result, "[T]this continuous tinkering often affects already troubled aspects of states’ lethal injection procedures, such as the paltry qualifications of executioners, the absence of medical experts, and the failure to account for difficulties injecting inmates whose drug-using histories diminish the availability of usable veins." She also addressed states' attempts to handle drug shortages, including changing drugs and turning to compounding pharmacies, whose recent record of contamination and resultant deaths have led to calls for greater regulatory oversight. She concluded, "Until death penalty states are willing to focus more on solutions than secrecy, lethal injection as a method of execution will remain mired in an endless cycle of difficulty and disorder."

LETHAL INJECTION: Many States Are Searching for New Execution Drugs

Many states are seeking alternative ways to carry out executions by lethal injection. Missouri announced it intends to use the anesthetic propofol, though no other state has used this drug and the drug's manufacturer has strongly objected to such use. Officials in Texas and Ohio announced they will be changing their execution protocols in the near future because their current execution drug (pentobarbital) is expiring and is no longer available for this use. In June, officials in California announced it would abandon its three-drug execution method and develop a new process. Georgia apparently obtained drugs outside the state, but has passed a law making all information about executions a "state secret."  Deborah Denno, a professor at Fordham Law School and an expert on methods of execution, noted the problems states face, “The bottom line is no matter what drugs they come up with, despite every avenue these states have pursued, every drug they have investigated has met a dead end. This affects every single execution in the country. It just stalls everything, stalls the process.”

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