During the April 7, 2024, episode of “Last Week Tonight,” host John Oliver focused on “grim developments” in the death penalty since his last segment covering lethal injection in 2019. Since then, 91 people have been executed, including 13 federal prisoners during former President Donald Trump’s administration. “Our federal and state governments have continued to pursue questionably legal and definitely horrifying ways, that, again, I would argue they shouldn’t be doing at all,” Mr. Oliver asserted. He explained that the increased difficulty in obtaining drugs required for lethal injection has pushed lawmakers to enact secrecy statutes that protect the identities of businesses and individuals involved in drug development and procurement. “At every level, those who carry out executions crave secrecy,” said Mr. Oliver. Because of these practices, several states have tried to “source drugs from some pretty sketchy suppliers,” which Mr. Oliver claims “is a problem because when drugs are tainted or not formulated at the proper dosage, executions become a protracted nightmare of suffering, which is both horrifying, and also, unconstitutional.”

While President Trump’s administration offered “sanitized accounts” of all 13 federal executions, Mr. Oliver says that autopsies of two executed individuals revealed that the prisoners’ lungs were “twice as heavy as they should be, indicating ‘pulmonary edema,’ where fluid rushes into the lungs and airways,” causing a drowning or suffocating sensation without adequate anesthetization.

In light of these problematic findings, Mr. Oliver questioned where the Trump administration obtained the pentobarbital it used. Through Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests submitted by journalists on Mr. Oliver’s team, Last Week Tonight revealed that it believes that Absolute Standards, a Hamden, Connecticut based company, provided the federal government with the pentobarbital used in the federal executions. The problem, Mr. Oliver alleges, is that while Absolute Standards has been registered with the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) since August 2018 to produce pentobarbital, the drugs are not authorized for human consumption. According to Mr. Oliver, “under the law, companies that make drugs need to be registered with the FDA, and the Trump administration claimed, before the executions, that its supplier was ‘properly registered.’” An additional FOIA request submitted to the Food and Drug Administration revealed that the organization was “unable to locate any records responsive” to the request, and Absolute Standards “has not been inspected by the FDA.” In 2020, Reuters also reported that Absolute Standards may have been the source of executions drugs, but the company’s director, Stephen Arpie, did not confirm and said the company does not always know what is done with their product.

“All this secrecy is also meant to protect us — the people in whose name [executions are] done — from confronting the horror of what the death penalty truly is,” Mr. Oliver said. “Because whether it’s nitrogen gas, or an IV injection of drugs, or a firing squad, or an electric chair, or being pressed with weights, it’s all brutal.” Mr. Oliver called on President Biden to commute the death sentences of all 42 individuals on federal death row to sentences of life in prison without the possibility of parole. “But beyond commuting sentences, [President] Biden’s administration could do much more. It could investigate the legality of the federal government’s drug purchases from Absolute Standards…” added Mr. Oliver, who also said state legislatures should eliminate secrecy laws and promote transparency. In closing, Mr. Oliver states that “if the government is going to give itself the power to execute its own citizens — which, for the final time, I strongly believe that it should not — then I want to see where the drugs come from, who’s making them, and relentless scrutiny of every part of this process. Because all this is being done in our name, and far too often, in secret. And we should get a voice to express how we feel about that.”