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U.S. | Execution by nitrogen hypoxia doesn’t seem headed for widespread adoption as bills fall short and nitrogen producers object

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The day after Alabama carried out the first-known US execution using nitrogen gas, its attorney general sent a clear message to death penalty states that might want to follow suit: “Alabama has done it, and now so can you.” Indeed, in the weeks immediately following the January execution of Kenneth Smith, it appeared a handful of states were listening, introducing bills that would adopt the method known as nitrogen hypoxia or a similar one. Officials behind each framed the legislation as an alternative method that could help resume executions where they had long been stalled.

Oklahoma halted execution questions answered

Friends and supporters protesting Richard Glossip's execution.
Friends and supporters protesting Richard Glossip's execution.
Oklahoma's protocols called for potassium chloride to be used in the scheduled execution of death row inmate Richard Glossip, but the state received potassium acetate instead. The state's attorney general has asked a court to delay Glossip's rescheduled execution and others that have been set while a review is done on why the wrong drug came.

Here are some questions and answers about the drugs and Oklahoma's execution process:

Q: ARE POTASSIUM CHLORIDE AND POTASSIUM ACETATE ALIKE?

A: According to the National Institutes of Health, potassium acetate and potassium chloride can each be used in medical settings to treat low levels of potassium, restoring appropriate heart rhythms, blood pressure and kidney function. NIH does not describe the drugs' use in death penalty cases. Executioners use potassium chloride to stop an inmate's heart.

Dr. Alice Chen, an internal medicine specialist and executive director of Doctors for America, says the 2 drugs are not interchangeable.

"As with any other drug, people react to them in different ways," Chen said. "We're not certain what the dose should be, how different people would react to it in the cocktail."

But Robert Patton, Oklahoma's prisons director, told reporters Thursday that the state's drug supplier believed one drug could be swapped with the other. He refused to say who supplied the drug; state law keeps the information a secret.

"Contact was immediately made to the provider, whose professional opinion was that potassium acetate is medically interchangeable with potassium chloride at the same quantity," Patton said. "However, by the provider supplying us with potassium acetate, a legal ambiguity was created that needed to be cleared up before moving forward."

Q: HAS POTASSIUM ACETATE BEEN USED IN A U.S. EXECUTION?

A: No, according to Jen Moreno, a staff attorney with the Death Penalty Clinic at the at the University of California's Berkeley Law School.

"It's never been used, and actually doctors and pharmacologists we're talking to aren't super familiar with it," Moreno said. "It's not a very common drug it seems."

Q: WHAT'S ALLOWED UNDER OKLAHOMA'S EXECUTION PROTOCOLS?

A: Oklahoma has some leeway in the drugs it uses in lethal injections, giving Patton discretion as to which chemicals are used. The protocols include dosage guidelines for single-drug lethal injections of pentobarbital or sodium pentothal, along with dosages for a 3-drug protocol of midazolam, vecuronium bromide and potassium chloride. The protocols also allow for rocuronium or pancuronium bromide to be substituted for the 2nd drug. The protocols do not list an alternate for potassium chloride, which is the 3rd drug used.

Much attention has been paid to midazolam, a sedative that Oklahoma first used in the April 2014 execution of Clayton Lockett. That execution - which lasted more than 40 minutes - led to a lawsuit that ended up before the U.S. Supreme Court, which ruled in June that the use of midazolam is constitutional.

The protocol says the state must notify the inmate within 10 days of the execution which drugs will be used. In an Aug. 11 letter to Glossip's attorneys, the state said it planned to use midazolam, rocuronium bromide and potassium chloride in Glossip's execution and that the drugs "have been obtained." No explanation has been offered for why potassium acetate was made available instead. Patton on Thursday blamed the vendor.

Q: WHEN DID THE STATE FIND OUT IT HAD THE WRONG DRUG?

A: Patton said a sealed box from the drug supplier was opened about 1 p.m. CDT Wednesday, two hours before Glossip's scheduled execution. He said the prison system immediately reached out to the supplier and was told potassium acetate was a suitable substitute.

Patton said the department tried to obtain potassium chloride but determined it wouldn't have been able to obtain it in time to carry out Glossip's execution on Wednesday.

The U.S. Supreme Court, asked to rule on Glossip's appeal for more time to prove his claim of innocence, issued its denial shortly before Glossip's scheduled execution time of 3 p.m. CDT. Fallin issued her emergency stay around 3:45 p.m.

Source: Associated Press, October 3, 2015

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