Lethal Injection

DPIC Releases New Report, “Behind the Curtain: Secrecy and the Death Penalty in the United States”

The Death Penalty Information Center has released a major new report, Behind the Curtain: Secrecy and the Death Penalty in the United States, examining the scope and consequences of secrecy in the application of the death penalty in the United States. The report, released on November 20, 2018, tells the story of the expansion of execution secrecy and the questionable practices that states have attempted to keep from public view. It details how, in their efforts to obtain execution drugs, states have used secrecy laws to conceal evidence that they have broken state and federal laws, deliberately induced contract breaches, lied to or misled legitimate drug suppliers, contracted with shady international suppliers and questionable domestic pharmacies, and swapped drugs with each other without proper storage and transport controls. As a result, an increasing number of executions have been botched: in 2017, more than 60% of executions carried out with midazolam produced eyewitness accounts of the execution going amiss. The report also describes how secrecy laws have undermined the reliability and legitimacy of court proceedings in which prisoners have challenged state execution practices as violating the Constitution’s ban on cruel or unusual punishments. “State officials have suppressed information that could prove prisoners’ claims while simultaneously arguing those claims should be rejected because they are unproven,” the report explains. “Over and over again, states have violated the law in the name of carrying out the law,” DPIC Executive Director Robert Dunham said. “And when the public has uncovered information the states have tried to conceal, it has exposed an ever-expanding scope of misconduct and incompetence. ‘Trust me, I’m the Government,’ is not an acceptable justification for execution secrecy.”

Supreme Court Hears Argument in Missouri Lethal-Injection Case

The U.S. Supreme Court heard oral argument on November 6, 2018 in Bucklew v. Precythe on whether the use of lethal injection to execute a Missouri prisoner with a rare medical condition would cause him unnecessary and excruciating pain and suffering and whether he was constitutionally required to provide the state with a different way for it to kill him. Media reports suggested that the Court was sharply divided on the issue with newly appointed Justice Brett Kavanaugh likely to provide the deciding vote. 

Russell Bucklew (pictured) suffers from cavernous hemangioma, a rare disorder that has caused blood-filled tumors to form, primarily in his head, neck, and mouth. Doctors have said that an execution by lethal injection could cause those tumors to rupture, causing him excruciating pain as he dies from suffocation and drowning in his own blood. Justice Kavanaugh, in his first question in his first death-penalty case since joining the Court, asked Missouri Solicitor General D. John Sauer, "Are you saying even if the method creates gruesome and brutal pain you can still do it because there’s no alternative?" When Kavanaugh pressed Sauer for a direct answer, Missouri's solicitor said yes, so long as the state did not "attempt to deliberately inflict pain for the sake of pain." 

Bucklew challenged the requirement, announced in the Court's 2015 lethal-injection decision in Glossip v. Gross, that prisoners who are challenging the cruelty of a state's execution method must offer an alternative method of execution that is reasonably available to the state. Nonetheless, to comply with the requirement, Bucklew proposed asphyxiation by nitrogen gas. Chief Justice John Roberts seemed skeptical of that proposal, asking "how can it be a reasonable alternative if it's never been used before? ... Things can go wrong regardless of the method of execution. It seems to me that if you have a method that no state has ever used, that that danger is magnified." Justice Sonia Sotomayor, who has raised serious concerns about lethal injection in past cases, questioned the legitimacy of the Court's requirement that prisoners who challenge execution methods must present an alternative method. “I don’t actually know where in the Eighth Amendment and its history the court made up this alternative remedy idea,” she said, “because the Constitution certainly doesn’t prohibit cruel and unusual punishment unless we can’t kill you at all.”

Missouri has set execution dates for Bucklew twice, but both dates were stayed as a result of legal challenges to the execution method. Public health experts and the Association for Accessible Medicines (AAM)—a professional association representing generic and biosimilar drug manufacturers and distributors—filed amicus briefs in Bucklew's case, calling the planned use of "essential medicines" in executions "medically irresponsible," and warning of public health risks caused by states' efforts to obtain lethal-injection drugs.

Attorneys Challenge Tennessee's “Utterly Barbaric” Planned Use of Electric Chair

As Edmund Zagorski faces a November 1, 2018 execution in Tennessee, the courts have required him to choose between death by lethal injection and electrocution. His lawyers argue that both methods, as well as the forced choice between the two, are unconstitutional. In a lawsuit filed in federal district court on October 26, 2018 and appealed to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit on October 30, Zagorski’s attorney, Kelley Henry, wrote of electrocution, “while better than lethal injection, such a death is still utterly barbaric,” alleging that it violates the Eighth Amendment ban on cruel and unusual punishment. The lawsuit claims that Tennessee’s electric chair is “incompetently designed,” and that Zagorski will suffer as electrocution “burns Mr. Zagorski’s skin from his skull, boils his blood and fails to promptly stop his heart and brain function.” Describing Tennessee’s three-drug midazolam-based execution as one in which “the prisoner [will feel] as if he is ‘drowning, suffocating, and being burned alive from the inside out’ during a process that could last as long as 18 minutes,” Henry argues that the state “has coerced Mr. Zagorski — with the threat of extreme chemical torture via a barbaric three-drug lethal injection protocol — to choose to die a painful and gruesome death in the electric chair.”

Henry also argues that Tennessee has unconstitutionally forced Zagorski to choose between execution by lethal injection with midazolam and death by electrocution, while employing state secrecy laws to prevent him from obtaining information necessary to prove that a less painful one-drug lethal injection with pentobaritol was available. Quoting Justice Sonya Sotomayor’s dissent from the Supreme Court’s October 11 refusal to hear Zagorski’s prior lethal-injection challenge, Zagorski argued “‘[w]hen the prisoners tasked with asking the State to kill them another way are denied by the State information crucial to establishing the availability of that other means of killing, a grotesque requirement has become Kafkaesque as well.’”

Zagorski’s execution was originally scheduled for October 11, but Governor Bill Haslam issued a temporary reprieve to give prison officials time to prepare for an execution by electric chair. On October 29, U.S. District Judge Aleta Trauger rejected Zagorski’s challenge to the electric chair, but issued a temporary restraining order preventing the execution from going forward unless the state provides his lawyers with access to a telephone to contact the court if something goes wrong during the execution. On October 31, Zagorski filed a motion for stay of execution in the federal appeals court and both sides filed briefs on the constitutionality of Tennessee’s electrocution protocol. It is expected that whichever side loses in the appeals court will seek review by the U.S. Supreme Court. 

A February 2015 poll conducted by YouGuv found that Americans, by a 21 percentage-point margin (54% vs. 33%), consider the electric chair cruel and unusual punishment. The states that used the electric chair moved to lethal injection in the wake of several gruesomely botched electrocutions, decisions by the Georgia and Nebraska Supreme Courts declaring electric-chair executions unconstitutional, and a 2009 U.S. Supreme Court decision agreeing to hear a challenge to the constitutionality of Florida’s use of the electric chair. That challenge was later rendered moot when Florida abandoned executions by electrocution. Tennessee last carried out an execution in its electric chair in 2007.

Governor Rejects Jurors’ Plea for Clemency for Edmund Zagorski as Tennessee Court Allows Lethal Injections to Proceed

Ignoring declarations by six jurors in Edmund Zagorski’s 1984 trial that they would have spared Zagorski (pictured) if they could have sentenced him to life without parole, Tennessee Governor Bill Haslam rejected Zagorski’s petition for clemency on October 5, 2018. In conjunction with the Tennessee Supreme Court's October 8 ruling upholding the constitutionality of the state's lethal-injection protocol, Haslam’s decision moved the state closer to executing Zagorski on October 11. At the time of Zagorski’s trial, Tennessee law required jurors in death-penalty cases to choose between sentencing a defendant to death or risk the possibility that he could later be released on parole. The jurors in Zagorski’s case submitted sworn declarations in support of clemency, saying that they would have sentenced him to life without possibility of parole, rather than the death penalty, if they had been given the no-parole option. Juror Michael Poole told Nashville Scene, “Our concern was that at some point in time maybe this man would be released and could actually be out in society and commit such a crime again. ... [Zagorski] has paid a significant price up to this point, I feel, and the continuation of his imprisonment until he dies of natural causes I think is punishment enough.” Nancy Arnold, another juror, agreed. “[A]s far as the law was concerned, all we could do was what we did. We had no choice of life without parole. I would have definitely done that if it had been available.” Zagorski’s clemency plea was also supported by correctional officials who said he has been a model prisoner and has reformed during his 34 years on death row. Despite those statements, Gov. Haslam denied clemency, writing that “the jury in Zagorski’s case heard the evidence at trial and rendered a unanimous verdict in accordance with the law at the time and their duty as jurors. Ten courts, including the Tennessee Supreme Court and the Supreme Court of the United States, have reviewed and upheld the jury’s verdict and sentence, and the Tennessee Supreme Court has held that the addition of life imprisonment without the possibility of parole as a sentencing option does not affect previous verdicts.” The Tennessee Supreme Court on October 8 also removed a hurdle to Zagorski’s execution, ruling 4-1 that Tennessee's lethal-injection protocol is constitutional, and that prisoners did not prove an alternative was available, as required. In response to that ruling, Zagorski requested that the state execute him with the electric chair, saying, “I do not want to be subjected to the torture of the current lethal injection method.” In a statement, Zagorski’s lawyer, assistant federal defender Kelley Henry, said the Tennessee high court decision had left Zagorski to choose between “two unconstitutional methods of execution.” Describing the prospect of “10-18 minutes of drowning, suffocation, and chemical burning” as “unspeakable,” Henry said Zagorski found the electric chair to be “the lesser of two evils.” Zagorski is appealing the Tennessee Supreme Court’s decision.

Tennessee Supreme Court Hears Challenge to Lethal-Injection Protocol

The Tennessee Supreme Court heard oral argument on October 3, 2018 of an appeal brought by 32 death-row prisoners challenging the constitutionality of the state's execution protocol. In a move criticized by one of the court's justices as a “rocket docket,” the court removed the case from a lower court and set argument for one week before Tennessee's scheduled October 11 execution of Edmund Zagorski. Previously, the court denied a stay of execution to Billy Ray Irick, allowing him to be executed before the lethal-injection issues were resolved. Arguing for the prisoners, assistant federal defenders Kelley Henry and Dana Hansen Chavis told the court that “unassailable science” shows that midazolam, the first drug used in Tennessee executions, is insufficient to block the intense pain caused by the second and third drugs. The prisoners asked the court to consider medical evidence from Irick’s execution that Irick had been conscious while experiencing the torturous effects of the vecuronium bromide injected to induce paralysis and the potassium chloride used to stop his heart. Witnesses to Irick’s execution reported that he choked, moved his head, and strained his forearms against restraints while being put to death. The prisoners offered a sworn statement from Dr. David Lubarsky, one of the nation’s leading anesthesiologists, who offered an opinion “to a reasonable degree of medical certainty” that Irick “was aware and sensate during his execution and would have experienced the feeling of choking, drowning in his own fluids, suffocating, being buried alive, and the burning sensation caused by the injection of the potassium chloride.” “If the Eighth Amendment means anything,” Henry argued, “then the court will rule in favor of the plaintiffs.” Much of the argument focused on the requirement imposed by the U.S. Supreme Court that before a state’s chosen execution method can be declared unconstitutionally cruel and unusual, prisoners must prove that some other constitutionally-acceptable method is available to execute them. The Tennessee prisoners proposed that the state could switch to a one-drug protocol using pentobarbital, which both Georgia and Texas have recently used in carrying out executions. Alternatively, they suggested that Tennessee drop the paralytic drug from the execution process, citing testimony that its inclusion causes additional, unnecessary pain. Tennessee’s lawyers argued that the state had made a “diligent effort” to obtain pentobarbital but none of the approximately 100 suppliers the Tennessee Department of Correction contacted would provide the drug for use in executions. Associate Solicitor General Jennifer Smith provided no explanation for why suppliers refused the sale but said that “[t]he state bears no burden at all” to prove that the drug was unavailable. In an admission that countered one of the frequent claims of execution proponents, Smith said there was no evidence death penalty opponents had interfered with the state’s efforts to obtain the drug. In response to questions from Justice Holly Kirby about the prisoners’ burden of proving that the state could obtain pentobarbital, Henry explained that the state’s refusal to provide any information on its efforts created “procedural roadblocks” to proving that point. Justice Sharon Lee appeared to support the prisoners’ position on transparency, asking Smith how the state could fairly demand that the prisoners “prove what they can’t possibly prove because they can’t get the records.” A motion to stay Zagorski execution is pending before the court, and it is unclear whether the court will rule on the merits of the appeal before his execution date. An application for clemency has also been filed and is under review by Governor Bill Haslam.

Finding “Bad Faith,” Judge Grants Injunction Preventing Nevada From Using Drug in Execution

Finding that the Nevada Department of Corrections acted in “bad faith” to obtain the drug midazolam through “subterfuge,” a Las Vegas trial court has issued a preliminary injunction barring the state from using its supply of that drug in carrying out any execution. The 43-page ruling issued by Judge Elizabeth Gonzalez (pictured) on September 28, 2018 effectively freezes efforts by Nevada prosecutors to execute Scott Dozier, who has waived his appeals and asked to be put to death. Judge Gonzalez found that Nevada prison officials knew when they purchased supplies of each of the drugs in the state's three-drug lethal-injection protocol from drug distributor Cardinal Health that the manufacturers of all three drugs prohibited the use of their medicines in executions. However, Judge Gonzalez limited the injunction to the midazolam produced by the generic-drug manufacturer Alvogen Inc., finding that the company’s distribution contract with Cardinal Health specifically barred sales of the sedative for use in lethal injections. While Gonzalez said she was “disturbed by the conduct of the State” in its purchase of the paralytic drug cisatracurium and its “illegitimate acquisition” of the opiate fentanyl, she said the absence of evidence that drug manufacturers Sandoz Inc. and Hikma Pharmaceuticals USA Inc. had sales controls in place with Cardinal Health at the time Nevada purchased supplies of those drugs was sufficient to deny them injunctive relief. The court issued its order after week-long hearing on a lawsuit filed by Alvogen just before Dozier’s scheduled July 11, 2018 execution. Alvogen’s suit alleged that Nevada had obtained its supply of midazolam “by subterfuge” and that Nevada had “intentionally defrauded Alvogen’s distributor” by concealing its intention to use the drugs to execute Dozier and by “implicitly ma[king] the false representation that they had legitimate therapeutic rationale” for buying the drug. Gonzalez’s order notes that even before beginning to distribute midazolam, “Alvogen put in place controls to prevent the direct sale [of the drug] to any department of corrections, or any sale that Alvogen believed could be diverted to be used in an execution.” The judge determined that both Nevada’s prison director, James Dzurenda, and its prison pharmacy director, Linda Fox, knew when they bought Alvogen’s drugs that the company “objected to their use in lethal injection and that they had controls in place to prevent sales for such use... Indeed,” Judge Gonzalez wrote, “when purchasing the Alvogen Midazolam Product, Fox’s response to Alvogen’s objections was ‘Oh shit.’ She then asked if Mr. Dzurenda if he would like her to order more [midazolam] because she was ‘certain once it’s in the press that we got it [she] will be cut off.’” Knowing “that it was not allowed to acquire this product for use in capital punishment,” Judge Gonzalez wrote, the Nevada Department of Corrections “was not a good faith purchaser” of Alvogen’s midazolam. The court also found that Nevada's use of the medicines in executions “will irreparably harm the three companies’ reputations,’ ... result[ing] in lost sales, lost licensing opportunities, weakened employee recruitment, divestitures by investors, increased financing costs, lost opportunities to enter the market for generic drugs, and lost opportunities to develop new branded drugs.” The case is the first time a court has conducted a hearing into state misconduct in acquiring execution drugs. In 2017, drug distributor McKesson Medical-Surgical sued Arkansas and multiple drug companies alleged misconduct by the state in obtaining its execution drugs. Although the Arkansas Supreme Court permitted that lawsuit to move forward, the drugs expired and the parties agreed to dismiss the action before the court could take evidence in the case. 

Medical Expert: Billy Ray Irick Tortured to Death in Tennessee Execution

Billy Ray Irick (pictured) was tortured to death during his August 9, 2018 execution in Tennessee, according to one the nation's leading anesthesiologists. In an affidavit submitted to the Tennessee Supreme Court on September 6 as part of an appeal filed by state death-row prisoners challenging Tennessee’s execution process, anesthesiologist Dr. David Lubarsky, the Vice Chancellor for Human Health Sciences at the University of California-Davis Health, said Irick was not properly anesthetized during his execution and experienced the torturous effects of the second and third lethal-injection drugs while still conscious. Lubarsky, who previously testified during a lower court hearing on the prisoners’ lethal-injection challenge, examined witness descriptions of Irick's execution and concluded “to a reasonable degree of medical certainty” that Irick “was aware and sensate during his execution and would have experienced the feeling of choking, drowning in his own fluids, suffocating, being buried alive, and the burning sensation caused by the injection of the potassium chloride.” Witnesses reported that Irick choked, moved his head, and strained his forearms against restraints, all of which, Dr. Lubarsky said, are signs that he was able to feel the effects of the drugs. Lubarsky also noted that prison officials taped Irick's hands—a step unnecessary to the execution because Irick’s wrists were already restrained—preventing witnesses from observing movements of the fingers and hands that would have been “a clear indicator” that he was not anesthetized. The second and third drugs used in Tennessee are known to be excruciatingly painful if a prisoner is not fully unconscious. A court pleading filed by Kelley Henry, an attorney representing Tennessee’s death-row prisoners in their legal challenge to the execution protocol, graphically described the execution process. “This case is about whether it is constitutional to inject a human with a small bottle of acid—which will destroy the lining of their lungs and cause them to drown in blood—and then to inject them with a paralytic that will leave them conscious but expressionless—unable to speak or scream—feeling as if they are buried alive, and finally to stop their heart with an injection that will, in their last minute of life, cause them to chemically burn alive.” Prior to Irick’s execution, U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor dissented from a denial of a stay, writing, “In refusing to grant Irick a stay, the Court today turns a blind eye to a proven likelihood that the State of Tennessee is on the verge of inflicting several minutes of torturous pain on an inmate in its custody, while shrouding his suffering behind a veneer of paralysis.” Records from Irick’s execution also indicate that the state violated its own execution protocol by failing to prepare an additional dose of midazolam, the drug used to sedate him. New filings in the lethal-injection suit said that the state’s actions showed that the “protocol is meaningless” and “creates a substantial risk of severe pain and suffering.” Tennessee prosecutors filed a response on September 13 asking the court not to consider Lubarsky's declaration, saying his opinion was based on hearsay and hadn't been subject to cross-examination. The Tennessee high court has removed the case from the state’s intermediate appellate court and set an expediting briefing schedule, an unusual move that Tennessee Supreme Court Justice Sharon Lee criticized as a “rocket docket” that undermines the possibility of meaningful appellate review. On September 14, the Tennessee Supreme Court issued an order deferring a ruling until after oral argument on the appeal of the lethal injection challenge on October 3.

Nebraska Executes Carey Dean Moore in First Execution in 21 Years

On August 14, 2018, more than two decades after last putting a prisoner to death, Nebraska executed Carey Dean Moore (pictured). The execution—which used an untested drug formula of diazepam (the sedative Valium), fentanyl citrate (an opioid painkiller), cisatracurium besylate (a paralytic), and potassium chloride to stop the heart—took 23 minutes. It was the state's first execution ever by lethal injection. The first drug, diazepam, was administered at 10:24 am, and Moore, who had spent 38 years on death row, was pronounced dead at 10:47. Associated Press reporter Grant Schulte, a media witness who kept a timeline of events during the execution, reported that on three occasions prison officials dropped a curtain that prevented the witnesses from seeing portions of the execution, and that towards the end of the procedure Moore's face turned reddish, then purple. Joe Duggan, a journalist for the Omaha World-Herald, said the media witnesses could see the IV-line connected to Moore's arm, but could not see into the room where prison personnel controlled the flow of the drugs. "[I]t was not possible for us to know exactly when each drug was administered," he said. Brent Martin, reporting for Nebraska Radio Network, compared Moore's executions to the 13 executions he had previously witnessed in Missouri, saying "this was much longer." He also noted that the Nebraska team "approached it a bit differently" than had corrections officials in Missouri, where executions had "become routine." But, he said, "I didn't get any sense that it did not go other than how they planned it to go." Later, prison officials acknowledged the curtain had been lowered after the last drug was administered, preventing the reporters from witnessing Moore's reaction to that drug. Before the execution, Moore gave a written final statement in which he apologized to his younger brother, Don, for "bringing him down," and asked opponents of the death penalty to work on behalf of four men on Nebraska's death row who he said are innocent. Capital punishment has been a contentious issue in Nebraska. In 2015, the state legislature repealed the death penalty over the veto of Governor Pete Ricketts. Ricketts then sponsored a voter referendum to reinstate the death penalty, which succeeded in 2016. The state's last execution had been in December 1997, when Robert Williams was executed in the state's electric chair. The nearly 21-year period between executions in the longest time any state has gone between executions in modern U.S. history.

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