Lethal Injection

40 Years After Key Supreme Court Decision, Constitutional and Practical Problems Plague Death Penalty

The execution of John Conner on July 15 ended a two-month period without executions in the United States, the longest such period in the country since 2007-2008. A range of state-specific issues have contributed to this stoppage, including questions about the constitutionality of state death penalty practices, problems relating to lethal injection drugs and state execution protocols, and the fallout from botched executions. In an article for The American Prospect, Professor Frank Baumgartner outlines research showing that the death penalty, as applied today, remains error-prone, racially biased, and arbitrarily applied. Forty years after the U.S. Supreme Court's decision in Gregg v. Georgia allowed executions to resume, Baumgartner argues, the death penalty continues to fall short of meeting the constitutional requirements set forth by the Court. Baumgartner highlights studies that have found that the approximately one percent of death-eligible homicides that have resulted in executions are not necessarily the worst crimes, but rather, the crimes that happened to occur in jurisdictions that are prone to using the death penalty or that involved a white victim. As Chris Geidner explains in BuzzFeed, only three states - Georgia, Missouri, and Texas - have carried out any executions since January because other states are grappling with legal challenges to their sentencing procedures and lethal injection protocols, inability to obtain lethal injection drugs, or sometimes a combination of several issues. Challenges to the constitutionality of death penalty practices in Florida, Alabama, and Delaware—where non-unanimous jury recommendations for death have accounted for more than 20% of the nation's death sentences—have brought executions to a halt in those states and statutes in Nebraska and Montana may also face constitutional challenges for the role judges play in imposing death sentences in those states. The fallout from botched executions have halted executions in Arizona, Ohio, and Oklahoma. And gubernatorial moratoria and a variety of lethal injection issues have also contributed to the drop in executions. Geidner calls the situation "unprecedented," and predicts that the number of executions in the second half of 2016 will be even lower than the 14 carried out in the first half.

Status of Arkansas Death Penalty Uncertain Following Expiration of Lethal Injection Drugs

Just days after a split Arkansas Supreme Court upheld the state's execution protocol, Arkansas' supply of vecuronium bromide—a paralytic agent used in the state's three-drug lethal injection protocol—expired, leaving the status of future executions unclear. At that time, Governor Asa Hutchinson said that he wanted the Department of Correction to obtain a new supply of the drug rather than change the state's method of execution. In 2015, the state spent $25,000 for lethal injection drugs and set eight execution dates. Death row prisoners challenged the state's execution protocol and secrecy law, which they say violated the settlement in a challenge to an earlier protocol. The new litigation, which raised critical questions about whether the new protocol might result in an unconstitutionally cruel and unusual execution, took nearly a year to resolve, ending just before the June 30 expiration date of the execution drugs. Because every major manufacturer of pharmaceuticals in the U.S. opposes the use of their products in executions, Governor Hutchinson said it is "unknown" whether Arkansas will be able to obtain a new supply of the drugs. He again expressed hesitation at the idea of changing the state's lethal injection protocol, saying, "You don't want to deviate from what's already been tested and approved[;] otherwise you're starting all over again." The Arkansas Department of Correction would not disclose what efforts it has made to obtain new execution drugs. The state last carried out an execution in 2005.  

Arizona Lacks Supply of Execution Drugs, "Presently Incapable of Carrying Out" Executions

In a court filing in the federal lawsuit challenging its execution procedures, Arizona officials have declared that the state does not have the drugs necessary to carry out an execution, and is currently unable to obtain them. The filing states, "the Department’s lack of the drugs and its current inability to obtain these drugs means that the Department is presently incapable of carrying out an execution." Arizona has four separate multi-drug protocols it may use in executions. One involves the use of the anti-anxiety drug, midazolam, to sedate the prisoner before the other drugs are administered. The other three protocols involve the use of either pentobarbital or sodium thiopental. The state used midazolam in the botched execution of Joseph Wood in 2014, which was the last execution conducted in Arizona. The state attempted to import 1,000 vials of sodium thiopental from a supplier in India, but the shipment was seized at Phoenix airport by the Food and Drug Administration, which said the importation of pharmaceuticals without an approved medical purpose violated federal law. In its recent court filing, Arizona announced that it will abandon the use of midazolam and indicated that it has been unable to obtain the other sedatives. After Wood's execution, death row inmates challenged the state's lethal injection protocol, which called for midazolam followed by a paralytic drug, on the grounds that, "midazolam is not reliable as a sedative, which means the paralytic will mask the inmate’s pain." In May, U.S. District Court Judge Neil Wake permitted that claim to move forward, effectively delaying all executions until after the state's supply of midazolam had expired. Dale Baich, an attorney for the Arizona prisoners challenging the protocol, said, "As we have said all along, midazolam is not an appropriate drug for use in executions....Arizona now becomes the second state to abandon the experimental use of this drug in executions. Now, more than ever, we need to ensure that Arizona's execution protocol comports with the constitutional requirements for a humane execution....We need a much more specific, clear plan that has been vetted by the court and is understood by the public." A hearing will be held on June 29.

Divided State Court Upholds Arkansas Lethal Injection Protocol and Secrecy Law, Potentially Opening Path to Eight Executions

A divided Arkansas Supreme Court voted 4-3 on June 23 to uphold the state's lethal injection protocol and secrecy policy. The decision potentially opens the path for the state to move forward with eight executions that had been stayed pending the outcome of this litigation. However, it is unclear whether executions will resume because Arkansas' supply of lethal injection drugs expires on June 30, and the supplier from which it obtained those drugs has indicated that it will no longer sell execution drugs to the state. The Arkansas Department of Corrections has told the Associated Press that its "inventory sheet ... has not changed" since April, when it disclosed that its doses of the paralytic drug, vecuronium bromide, are set to expire. A prison official's affidavit, submitted during the court proceedings, said that the state had contacted at least five additional drug wholesalers or manufacturers, all of whom said they either would not sell the drugs to the state or would not sell them without the makers' permission. Arkansas has not carried out an execution since 2005. The death row prisoners had argued that Arkansas's proposed execution protocol and its secrecy policy, which enables the state to conceal the identities of execution drug suppliers, could result in unconstitutionally cruel and unusual executions. Justice Robin Wynne, who dissented, said he believed the inmates had successfully proved that claim. In a separate dissent, Justice Josephine Linker Hart said she would have ordered the state to disclose the source of the drugs. The majority decision also rejected prisoners' argument that the secrecy law violates a settlement that guaranteed them access to the now-secret information, declaring that the settlement agreement was not a binding contract.

Louisiana Executions on Hold Until At Least 2018

Louisiana will not conduct any executions in 2016 or 2017 as a result of a new court order issued with the consent of the parties in federal proceedings challenging the constitutionality of Louisiana's lethal injection process. At the request of the Louisiana Attorney General, a federal judge has delayed proceedings on the state's lethal injection protocol for an additional 18 months, making January 2018 the earliest date the state could resume executions. Attorney General Jeff Landry asked for the extension because the facts of the case are in a "fluid state" and it would be "a waste of resources and time to litigate this matter at present time." The request marked the third time in two years that the state has asked to delay the trial. In June 2015, after the state's execution drugs had expired, its lawyers told the court that Louisiana lacked the drugs necessary to carry out executions. In February, the Louisiana Department of Corrections indicated that the state still did not have the drugs needed to conduct an execution. Previously, in 2013, the state had considered purchasing execution drugs from a Tulsa, Oklahoma, compounding pharmacy that was not licensed to provide drugs to any pharmacy in Louisiana, making any purchase of drugs from that company by the Louisiana State Penitentiary Pharmacy illegal under state law. That compounding pharmacy, which secretly sold execution drugs to Missouri during the same period, was implicated in nearly 2,000 violations of Oklahoma pharmacy regulations. The state later obtained one of the execution drugs it needed from a hospital in Lake Charles, misrepresenting to the hospital that it needed the drugs for medical purposes. Christopher Sepulvado, one of the two inmates named in the challenge to the constitutionality of Louisiana's execution procedure, was originally scheduled to be executed in 2014. Louisiana's protocol allows for either a one-drug execution using pentobarbital, or a two-drug execution using midazolam and hydromorphone. The state does not have the drugs necessary for either option, according to a spokesperson for the Depatment of Corrections. Louisiana's last execution was in 2010.

As Legitimate Market for Execution Drugs Dries Up, States' Secret Execution Practices Become Increasingly Questionable

Pfizer's recent announcement that it was tightening controls against what it calls the misuse of its medicines in executions highlights an on-going struggle between states desperate for execution drugs and a medical community that believes its involvement in the lethal injection process violates its medical and corporate missions and the ethical standards of the pharmaceutical and health professions. As Pfizer and nearly two dozen other pharmaceutical companies have ended open market access to drugs potentially used in executions, states have responded by increasingly shrouding the execution process in secrecy. The states "are mainly concerned about losing their providers of lethal-injection drugs should the companies’ names become public," says Linc Caplan in a recent article in The New Yorker. Otherwise, "companies that do not want their products associated with executions will know that their drugs are being used." He reports that since the Supreme Court upheld Kentucky's execution protocol in 2008, 20 states have responded to drug shortages by abandoning protocols that had been substantially similar to Kentucky’s, making "unfettered substitutions" to their protocols in "desperate attempts to adhere to their execution schedules.” Caplan reports that States "have also been increasingly misleading in their efforts to obtain drugs for executions." He cites documents showing that one Ohio official urged state drug purchasers to identify themselves as from the Department of Mental Health and warned they should "not mention anything about corrections in the phone call or what we use the drug for." Louisiana similarly obtained execution drugs from a local hospital, which mistakenly assumed they were needed for medical use. Last week, an Oklahoma grand jury report described that state's secrecy practices as producing a "paranoia" that "clouded [prison officials'] judgment and caused administrators to blatantly violate their own policies." An article by Chris McDaniel in BuzzFeed after the release of that report documented that the same secrecy and lack of oversight criticized by the Oklahoma grand jury is common in other states, and has contributed to execution problems in Missouri, Georgia, and Ohio. Arizona and Missouri paid executioners in cash, and Missouri's mismanagement of that fund likely violated federal income tax law. Missouri's secrecy, McDaniels writes, also "allowed it to purchase execution drugs from a pharmacy in Tulsa, Oklahoma, that was not licensed in Missouri and had questionable pharmaceutical practices." Other states, like Texas and Arizona "have used the secrecy to purchase drugs illegally," he reports. 

Federal Court Ruling Permits Arizona Lethal Injection Challenge to Move Forward, Keeps Executions on Hold

U.S. District Court Judge Neil Wake ruled on May 18 that a lethal injection challenge brought by Arizona death row prisoners may move forward, preventing Arizona from carrying out any executions before the reported expiration date of its supply of a key execution drug. Arizona has said that it is unable to replenish its supply of midazolam, an anti-anxiety medication that a number of states have used as a sedative in multi-drug lethal injection procedures. The death row prisoners are challenging the state's use of midazolam in conjunction with a paralytic drug, saying that "midazolam is not reliable as a sedative, which means the paralytic will mask the inmate’s pain." Judge Wake called the argument "plausible on its face," and said that it was not blocked by earlier U.S. Supreme Court rulings. Baze v. Rees had reviewed the constitutionality of a drug protocol that had employed an anesthetic that, unlike midazolam, "would render the inmate insensate to pain caused by the paralytic and the potassium chloride." Wake also said that the Supreme Court's decision in Glossip v. Gross—which involved midazolam but was decided at a preliminary stage of a challenge brought by Oklahoma death row prisoners, without a full evidentiary record—did not control the outcome of this case because the Arizona inmates "will present substantial new evidence challenging midazolam’s efficacy as a sedative." The judge also criticized the state's conduct in carrying out six separate executions, saying, "In recent history, the Department has deviated from its published execution procedures in ways ranging from minor to fundamental. It has deviated in the course of an execution without explanation." Judge Wake said that Arizona's "unlimited major deviations" from its execution protocol, and its claim that the state had unfettered discretion to deviate from its protocol at any time, "threaten serious pain." The ruling paves the way for further litigation on the prisoners' claims that Arizona's protocol violates the Eighth Amendment ban on cruel and unusual punishment. However, the court dismissed other claims brought by a coalition of media groups that the state's denial of information about the drugs violated the First Amendment. Previously, Arizona had used drugs believed to have been illegally brought into the country to execute Richard Landrigan. The FDA impounded a later shipment of drugs that it said Arizona had attempted to import from India in violation of federal law.

Pfizer Announces Restrictions to Keep States From Using Its Medicines in Executions

On May 13, the pharmaceutical company Pfizer announced that it would impose strict distribution controls to block states from obtaining and using its medicines in executions. In a statement, the company said, "Pfizer makes its products to enhance and save the lives of the patients we serve. Consistent with these values, Pfizer strongly objects to the use of its products as lethal injections for capital punishment." With Pfizer's announcement, every major pharmaceutical company that produces drugs that have been used in lethal injections has voiced opposition to involvement in executions. The pharmaceutical companies are joined by medical organizations including the American Pharmacists Association, the International Academy of Compounding Pharmacies, and the American Medical Association, which all oppose their members' participation in executions. “It’s very significant that the pharmaceutical industry is speaking with a unified, singular voice,” said Megan McCracken, a lawyer at the Death Penalty Clinic at the University of California Berkeley School of Law. “Saying we don’t want our products used this way and actually taking steps to ensure that they aren’t." Pfizer's announcement will make it more difficult for states to obtain lethal injection drugs on the open market and through drug redistributors. The unavailability of execution drugs from these sources has driven states to seek alternative, and in some cases illegal, sources for these drugs, and has caused legal challenges in numerous states.

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