Oklahoma Set to Execute First Inmate Using New Drug

On December 14, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit rejected a claim by Oklahoma death row inmate Jeffrey Matthews that the use of the drug pentobarbital could result in a cruel and unusual punishment. The Court unanimously concluded that the amount of pentobarbital authorities plan to use, as the first in a three-drug procedure, would likely be lethal by itself. The decision also allows the execution of John David Duty, scheduled for December 16, to proceed. Duty would be the first death row inmate in the country to be executed using this new drug as part of a three-drug protocol. Earlier this year, a shortage of sodium thiopental from the nation’s sole manufacturer forced corrections departments around the country to seek alternatives for their lethal injection procedures. (Matthews’ execution date was set for Jan. 11, 2011.)

While Oklahoma proposed replacing sodium thiopental with pentobarbital, other states, such as Arizona and California, obtained the anesthetic from Great Britain. In Texas, the Attorney General has ruled that the source of the state’s lethal injection drugs should be made public. Texas reportedly has sufficient quantities of sodium thiopental for 39 executions, but the supply has an expiration date in March 2011. Following a botched-execution attempt in Ohio, the state changed from a three-drug method to a one-drug method – a lethal dose of sodium thiopental. Washington has also adopted this method. So far, 10 executions have been carried out using the one-drug protocol. Pentobarbital has been used in the euthanasia of animals, but not as part of the 3-drug protocol planned by Oklahoma. That procedure is banned by many veterinarian associations, including in Oklahoma.

(R. Boczkiewicz, “Appeals court rejects convicted killer’s challenge to Oklahoma execution method,” The Oklahoman, December 15, 2010; DPIC research). See Lethal Injection.