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In the crosshairs of conscience: John Kitzhaber's death penalty reckoning

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To cope with his dread, John Kitzhaber opened his leather-bound journal and began to write.
It was a little past 9 on the morning of Nov. 22, 2011. Gary Haugen had dropped his appeals. A Marion County judge had signed the murderer's death warrant, leaving Kitzhaber, a former emergency room doctor, to decide Haugen's fate. The 49-year-old would soon die by lethal injection if the governor didn't intervene.
Kitzhaber was exhausted, having been unable to sleep the night before, but he needed to call the families of Haugen's victims.
"I know my decision will delay the closure they need and deserve," he wrote.
The son of University of Oregon English professors, Kitzhaber began writing each day in his journal in the early 1970s. The practice helped him organize his thoughts and, on that particular morning, gather his courage.
Kitzhaber first dialed the widow of David Polin, an inmate Haugen beat and stabbed to death in 2003 while already serving a life sentence fo…

Pfizer’s move throws a wrench into America’s death-penalty machinery

“FIRST, do no harm.” Executives of pharmaceutical companies are not subject to this guiding principle of the Hippocratic oath—only doctors are. But increasingly, drug manufacturers are taking steps to ensure that their formulations do not wind up in syringes used for lethal injections of condemned prisoners. Last week, Pfizer, one of America’s largest drug companies, announced that it would no longer supply prisons with seven drugs used to impose the death penalty. “Pfizer’s mission is to apply science and our global resources to improve health and well-being at every stage of life”, the statement says. “Consistent with these values, Pfizer strongly objects to the use of its products as lethal injections for capital punishment.” The firm will sell the drugs “only for medically prescribed patient care and not for any penal purposes”, and take pains to ensure that the “select group of wholesalers, distributors and direct purchasers” who buy these drugs—pancuronium bromide, potassium chloride, propofol, midazolam, hydromorphone, rocuronium bromide and vecuronium bromide—“will not resell these products to correctional institutions”.

Pfizer’s move will rankle a devoted but diminished swath of America. Though 31 states still have death-penalty laws on their books, only a handful actually follow through. In 2015, a total of six states—Florida, Georgia, Missouri, Oklahoma, Texas and Virginia—hosted executions. And of the 27 men and one woman put to death last year (the lowest number since 1984), all but four were in the execution-leading troika of Georgia, Missouri and Texas. The execution method in all 28 cases—and in every application of the death penalty but one over the past four years (when Virginia electrocuted Robert Charles Gleason, Jr in 2013)—was lethal injection. Pfizer’s decision will exacerbate an already difficult situation for states seeking drugs that will reliably kill their worst offenders.

If it were not for the Supreme Court’s 5-4 decision a year ago in Glossip v Gross, the task of sourcing the the deadly cocktails would be even tougher. Oklahoma and a few other states had turned to one of the drugs on Pfizer’s list, midazolam, in 2013 when European drug companies opposed to the death penalty stopped supplying prisons with sodium thiopental and pentobarbital, barbiturates which induce a coma-like state. In Glossip, Richard Glossip and two other Oklahoma inmates challenged their pending executions because they believed midazolam carried a risk of torturing them to death. They presented the nightmare of Clayton Lockett’s execution in April 2014, during which he twisted in pain and regained consciousness to blurt out “this shit is fucking with my head” before succumbing after 43 minutes of apparent suffering.


Source: The Economist, Blogs, S.M., May 16, 2016

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