Lethal Injection

Tennessee Executes Billy Ray Irick in First Execution Since 2009

Over sharp dissents by justices of the U.S. and Tennessee Supreme Courts and lingering questions about the prisoner's history of mental illness and the efficacy of the state's lethal-injection protocol, Tennessee executed Billy Ray Irick (pictured) on August 9. He was the first person executed by the state since 2009. Justice Sonia Sotomayor described the process as a "rush to execute" and a descent into "barbarism." In the days leading up to the execution, the Tennessee Supreme Court and Tennessee Governor Bill Haslam rejected Irick's request for a stay or clemency. The state Supreme Court ruled on August 6 that Irick had failed to show his challenge to the execution protocol was likely to succeed on appeal, a requirement for the court to allow the lawsuit to proceed. Judge Sharon Lee dissented from the majority decision, writing, "The harm to Mr. Irick of an unconstitutional execution is irreparable. Yet the harm to the State from briefly delaying the execution until after appellate review is minimal, if any." Governor Bill Haslam declined to exercise his clemency power in Irick's case, saying that the judicial review of the case was "extremely thorough." Gene Shiles, Irick's attorney disagreed: "The truth is no facts relating to Billy’s state mind at the time of the offenses — including his hallucinations and talking to 'the devil' were ever considered by a single court on the merits. These facts, the most important to reasoned decisions as to guilt and punishment, were instead 'defaulted' and never weighed because they were determined to be untimely — raised too long after the trial." The U.S. Supreme Court denied a stay, but Justice Sonia Sotomayor strongly dissented from that denial, 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. I cannot in good conscience join in this 'rush to execute' without first seeking every assurance that our precedent permits such a result. If the law permits this execution to go forward in spite of the horrific final minutes that Irick may well experience, then we have stopped being a civilized nation and accepted barbarism." The Tennessean reported that Irick's execution was "certain to fuel a fierce national debate surrounding the drugs used to kill him, and if they amount to state-sanctioned torture." Federal public defender Kelley Henry said Irick exhibited signs of pulmonary edema during an execution that took more than twenty minutes. Henry said media witnesses had reported that “Mr. Irick ‘gulped for an extended period of time,’ was ‘choking,’ ‘gasping,’ ‘coughing,’ and that ‘his stomach was moving up and down.’ Witnesses described movement, including movement of the head, after the consciousness check. This means that the second and third drugs were administered even though Mr. Irick was not unconscious,” Henry said. Media reports indicated that the second and third drugs, a paralytic agent and potassium chloride, would cause a pain similar to drowning and being burned alive. 

Federal Appeals Court Sides with Alabama Prisoners on Lethal-Injection Case, Sends Back to District Court

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit has issued a ruling reviving a lawsuit brought by Alabama death-row prisoners that challenged the constitutionality of the state's three-drug execution protocol using the controversial lethal-injection drug midazolam. The unanimous decision by the three-judge federal appeals panel on September 1 reversed a federal district court ruling against several death-row prisoners who sued the Alabama Department of Corrections, alleging that the state's planned execution process created an unnecessary risk of a torturous death that could be eliminated if the state used other available drugs. The lower federal court had issued summary judgment for the state, finding that there was no feasible and readily implementable alternative drug protocol without having first determined whether Alabama's lethal-injection protocol created a substantial risk of pain. In reversing the district court's decision, the Eleventh Circuit held that the court failed to "first mak[e] a finding regarding the risk of pain, if any, the current three-drug protocol presents," saying that a court cannot evaluate whether an alternative reduces a risk if it does not know "what that risk is." The appellate court returned the case to the district court for further fact-finding proceedings, saying resolution of the issue "will require the presentation of expert opinion testimony" from both sides. The appeals court also rejected the lower court's finding that pentobarbital was not available as an alternative execution drug, noting that Texas, Georgia, and Missouri had conducted numerous recent executions with the drug. "From these facts it can reasonably be inferred that compounded pentobarbital was available" to Alabama, the court said. John Palombi, counsel for the prisoners, called the decision encouraging and said he was "very pleased that that the 11th Circuit has recognized that there are serious questions about the unconstitutionality of this protocol." He said the prisoners were "looking forward to finally getting to present evidence that we believe will demonstrate that the protocol is unconstitutional." That evidence is likely to include detailed accounts of botched executions that have used midazolam, including Alabama's execution of Ronald Bert Smith last December, during which Smith heaved, coughed, and clenched his fist for 13 minutes after receiving the injection of midazolam. Alabama currently has two executions scheduled for October—Jeffrey Borden on October 5 and Torrey McNabb on October 19. Neither of those prisoners is a party to this case, but both have similar challenges to the state's lethal-injection protocol pending on appeal before the Eleventh Circuit. Palombi has indicated that Borden and McNabb will ask the Alabama Supreme Court to vacate the scheduled execution dates in light of the Eleventh Circuit's ruling. [UPDATE: On September 6, Borden and McNabb filed emergency motions in the Alabama Supreme Court to vacate their execution dates. Later that day, the 11th Circuit overturned the district court's dismissal of their lethal injection challenges and remanded the case for further proceedings.]

DPIC Analysis: What is the Most Executions Conducted in the U.S. in the Shortest Time Span?

Top row, from left to right: Bruce Ward, Marcel Williams, Jason McGehee, and Kenneth Williams. Botton row, Stacey Johnson, Ledell Lee, Don Davis, and Jack Jones. Photos by Arkansas Department of Corrections.

Inaction on Execution Protocol Ensures Two-Year Hold on Executions in Oklahoma

For the first time in two decades, Oklahoma will go at least two years without an execution. As part of an agreement in a federal lawsuit brought by the state's death row prisoners, Oklahoma Attorney General Scott Pruitt (pictured) has said the state will not request execution dates for at least five months after the state adopts a new execution protocol. Because of this, when the Oklahoma Board of Corrections met on September 13, 2016, the state already could not have sought to conduct any execution until at least February 2017. When the corrections board adjourned without considering any new execution plan, it ensured that even more time would pass between executions in the state. The last time Oklahoma went at least two years without an execution was from March 13, 1992 to March 20, 1995, between the executions of Olan Robison and Thomas Grasso. The current execution hiatus comes in the wake of three consecutive botched execution attempts in Oklahoma. On April 29, 2014, prison personnel could not locate a usable vein in the arm of Clayton Lockett and used a wrong-sized needle in attempting to insert an IV in a vein in Lockett's groin. After 43 minutes, as the botched procedure was being halted, Lockett died of a heart attack. On January 15, 2015, Oklahoma executed Charles Warner in violation of state procedures when the state's anonymous drug provider supplied the wrong execution drug and no one in the execution process noticed the error. In September 2015, the execution of Richard Glossip was halted at the last moment after state officials discovered that they had again obtained the wrong execution drug. A grand jury investigating the state's botched executions issued a scathing report in May 2016 saying administrative "paranoia" over keeping execution information secret "clouded the judgment" of corrections officials, causing them "to blatantly violate their own policies." Following the Corrections Board meeting, Pruitt issued a statement seeking to assure victims' families that process of reviewing a new execution protocol "will continue to be both deliberate and empirical." Pruitt expressed confidence that the new leadership of the state's corrections department—appointed after the retirement of key corrections officials involved in the execution process—"is taking the appropriate time needed to ensure the execution protocols are fully in place and without error in the most efficient way possible." A DOC spokesman described the protocol as "a work in progress," and said "[t]here currently is no timeline on when anything will be released." Glossip—whose case raises significant questions of innocence that have drawn worldwide attention—and four other Oklahoma death row inmates have exhausted their appeals and face execution dates once the state adopts an execution protocol. 

Arizona Lethal Injection Challenge Proceeds As State Refuses to Rule Out Future Use of Controversial Execution Drug

A federal judge has rebuffed an attempt by Arizona to dismiss a lawsuit filed by the state's death row prisoners challenging the state's execution practices. The state argued at a hearing in the case in U.S. District Court on June 29, that the prisoners' lawsuit should be declared moot because Arizona's supply of midazolam—the first drug in one of the state's four execution protocols—had expired and that the state has been unable to obtain a new supply of that drug and other potential execution drugs from pharmaceutical manufacturers. However, defense lawyers argued that the state's announcement last week that it would drop midazolam from its execution protocol did not make the lawsuit moot because Arizona prison officials "could change their minds next week or next month.” And when pressed by Judge Neil Wake as to whether the Arizona Department of Corrections might use midazolam in the future if the drug became available, the state's lawyers said Arizona "will not commit to never using midazolam again.” The prisoners are also challenging Arizona's contention that the Corrections Director has unlimited discretion to make changes to the state's execution protocol. The prisoners argue that the state has abused that discretion to make last-minute changes in the execution protocol, preventing condemned prisoners from learning the details of the execution protocol until after a death warrant has been issued. This, in combination with secrecy provisions that conceal information about the source and quality of the drugs to be used in executions, has artificially limited the court's ability to address the legal challenges to Arizona's execution practices and resulted in what Judge Wake has characterized as "crisis litigation." In the past, Judge Wake had permitted executions to go forward in those circumstances—including the botched two-hour execution of Joseph Wood. However, he said that he would now consider staying future executions if necessary to ensure "prompt and orderly litigation." The state's executions remain on hold as the lawsuit continues.

A Mid-Year Review: Halfway Through 2016, Execution Pace Remains at Historic Low

Six months into 2016, the pace of executions in the United States remains at the same level as the 24-year low set in 2015. Fourteen executions have been carried out so far this year in five states - Texas (6), Georgia (5), and one each in Alabama, Florida, and Missouri - while 23 other scheduled executions have been halted by stays or reprieves. States carried out 28 executions in 2015. Eight executions are currently scheduled for the second half of the year, with seven in Texas and one in Georgia. Death penalty cases in two states that have carried out executions this year - Alabama and Florida - as well as in Delaware, are in limbo as state courts decide the ramifications of the U.S. Supreme Court decision in Hurst v. Florida, which struck down Florida's death sentencing scheme. The Supreme Court also ruled in favor of death row prisoners in two other major cases this spring. The Court overturned the Georgia conviction of Timothy Foster because prosecutors unconstitutionally excluded blacks from the jury, and it directed state courts in Alabama and Mississippi to reconsider capital convictions in two other cases in which similar abuses have been alleged. The Court also ordered a new appeal for Terry Williams in Pennsylvania because of judicial bias in his earlier appeal. Executions also have been affected by the ongoing controversy concerning lethal injection. In May, Pfizer joined numerous other pharmaceutical companies in implementing sales and distribution restrictions to prevent states from using its products in executions. Two states - Louisiana and Arizona - have recently announced that they are unable to obtain lethal injection drugs and Arkansas' supply of the lethal injection drug midazolam expired on June 30.

Oklahoma Grand Jury Issues Report Detailing "Blatant Violations" of the State's Execution Protocol

Following seven months of investigation into the causes of Oklahoma's botched execution of Charles Warner using an unauthorized execution drug and its near-execution of Richard Glossip with the same wrong drug, an Oklahoma grand jury issued a report on May 19 identifying a wide range of what it characterized as "negligent," "careless," and in some instances "reckless" conduct by state officials that deviated from the state's execution protocol. The state's three-drug execution protocol called for the use of potassium chloride as the final drug to stop the prisoner's heart, but instead the state obtained the unauthorized drug, potassium acetate. The grand jury described a litany of errors or improprieties at virtually every stage of the execution process by virtually everyone who participated in the process. It found that Robert Patton, who subsequently retired from his position as Director of the Department of Corrections had "orally modified the execution protocol without authority"; the anonymous pharmacist selected by the state had "ordered the wrong execution drugs"; the DoC's General Counsel "failed to inventory the execution drugs" upon recept from the pharmacist; the agent of the DoC's Office of Inspector General "failed to inspect the execution drugs while transporting them"; Warden Anita Trammell, who oversaw the prison where the executions occurred and also retired in the wake of the execution scandal,"failed to notify anyone in the [DoC] that [the wrong drug] had been received"; other prison administrators and members of the execution IV team "failed to observe the Department had received the wrong drugs"; and that the Governor's former General Counsel, Steve Mullins, "advocated the Department proceed with the Glossip execution using potassium acetate" even though he knew its use was not authorized by the execution protocol. Mullins insisted that the drug was interchangeable with potassium chloride, telling the assistant attorney general to "Google it."  “It is unacceptable for the Governor’s General Counsel to so flippantly and recklessly disregard the written Protocol and the rights of Richard Glossip,” the grand jury wrote. “Given the gravity of the death penalty, as well as the national scrutiny following the [botched Clayton] Lockett execution, the Governor’s Counsel should have been unwilling to take such chances.” The grand jury also found that the judgment of prison officials throughout the process was "clouded" by the "paranoia" of keeping execution information secret, "caus[ing] administrators to blatantly violate their own policies."

NEW VOICES: Head of National Pharmacist's Group Opposes Lethal Injection Secrecy

Leonard Edloe (pictured), President of the American Pharmacists Association Foundation has urged Virginia lawmakers to reject Governor Terry McAuliffe's proposal to conceal the identity of the state's execution drug supplierssaying that the plan "undermines everything our profession stands for, and is actually against the law." In an op-ed in The Virginian-Pilot on the eve of a veto session in which the Virginia state legislature will consider the secrecy proposal, Edloe wrote: "Medicines are made to save lives, not end them. They’re not designed, or tested, to kill people." Edloe says "[k]eeping pharmacies out of the execution process is not just a point of principle. Federal law says drugs must be prescribed to a specific patient for a medicinal purpose. An execution clearly does not qualify." He describes the risks of compounding, pointing to the 2012 outbreak of fungal meningitis caused by badly compounded drugs, which killed 64 people. "In response, the federal government passed laws and regulations to increase the scrutiny of compounding pharmacies to protect the public," he said. "McAuliffe proposes the opposite approach — to give irresponsible compounders insulation from regulation — preventing the state taking action if a compounder supplied bad drugs that led to a botched execution." In 2015 the American Pharmacists Association issued a declaration opposing pharmacist involvement in capital punishment, and Edloe called such involvement "fundamentally contrary to the role of pharmacists as providers of healthcare." The current debate over secrecy, he says, "helps drive home the point that professional pharmacists have no place in the process." UPDATE: The Virginia legislature approved Gov. McAuliffe's amendments on April 20.