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Lethal injection: can pharma kill the death penalty?

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A recent problematic execution by lethal injection has reignited the debate about the ethics of using medical products to kill. In October, Oklahoma prison inmate John Marion Grant was executed by a lethal injection. Strapped to a gurney, Grant convulsed and vomited – highly unusual for the procedure – after being given midazolam, a sedative and the first of three drugs that are usually administered for lethal injection. Grant was declared unconscious around 15 minutes after receiving the first injection and died roughly six minutes after that. Extreme shortages resulting from the EU’s and pharma companies’ anti-execution moves have seen states seek alternative supplies illicitly from overseas manufacturers , obtain them from less-than-reputable compounding facilities and manufacturers , and experiment with alternative drugs and untested combinations . Now, this botched procedure – Oklahoma’s first lethal injection in six years after a spate of flawed executions in 2014 and 2015 – h

USA | Electrocution is authorized in 8 states, gas chambers are authorized in 7, and 4 states still authorize firing squads

Ernest Johnson became the latest American to be executed on US soil when he was killed on 5 October by lethal injection in a Missouri prison.

The technique – in Johnson’s case using pentobarbital – is the most common form of capital punishment in the US, despite medics having repeatedly sounded the alarm over how painful the method of death can be. 

It came hours after the Pope pleaded for mercy in the case of Johnson who was said to have profound intellectual disabilities and the ‘IQ of a 5-year-old’.

Autopsy results point to a “virtual medical certainty” that federal death-row prisoners will experience “excruciating pain” while they are being put to death by lethal injection with pentobarbital, and certain other drugs in common use for executions.

Dr Gail Norman, a physician and bioethicist, said prisoners would experience a sensation “identical to that reported by victims of near drowning or suffocation” adding: “These are among the most excruciating feelings known to man.”

Dr Norman made the comments in 2020, after reviewing the autopsy results of a prisoner, Wesley Purkey, who had been put to death using pentobarbital. She said Purkey’s autopsy results were consistent with those of other prisoners executed in the same way.

Lethal injection, while highly controversial, is the most common form of execution in the United States. Unfortunately, the alternatives are hardly more humane.

Electrocution is authorised in 8 states. Gas chambers are authorized in 7. 3 states – Delaware, New Hampshire, and Washington – still authorize hanging, and 4 states – Mississippi, Oklahoma, Utah, and South Carolina – authorize firing squads.

This is far from ancient history; some of these methods have been used fairly recently. In Tennessee, Nicholas Sutton was electrocuted in 2020. In Utah, Ronnie Gardner was executed by firing squad in 2010. And in Arizona, Walter LaGrand was put to death in a gas chamber in 1999. It took him 18 minutes to die.

Ironically, part of the reason such cruel punishments still exist is that many drug companies, horrified by the potential use of their products in executions, have refused to supply the chemicals for lethal injections.

“Punitive use of our medications is inconsistent with our values and mission of improving lives, and contrary to the intended labeled use for any of our products,” one drug manufacturer, American Regent, said in one 2018 statement.

The Independent and the nonprofit Responsible Business Initiative for Justice (RBIJ) have launched a joint campaign calling for an end to death penalty in the US. The RBIJ has attracted more than 150 well-known signatories to their Business Leaders Declaration Against the Death Penalty - with The Independent as the latest on the list.

We join high-profile executives like Ariana Huffington, Facebook’s Sheryl Sandberg, and Virgin Group founder Sir Richard Branson as part of this initiative and are making a pledge to highlight the injustices of the death penalty in our coverage.

“2 died in the electric chair, with 2,400 volts of electricity running from the skull to the ankle, the most overtly savage way imaginable to kill someone. And 2 on the lethal injection gurney, a deceptively unpleasant way to die – else why would the second injection be a paralytic agent to prevent the witnesses from watching a man in agony in front of them?

“Each time I have watched a human die it has been midnight, in the depths of darkness, as we are fundamentally ashamed of ourselves. Each time, I have come out of that dreadful, terrible chamber and looked up at the stars. I have asked myself: “Did that awful event really make the world a better, more civilized place?”.

America’s death map: Which US states still have capital punishment, and who uses it the most? 


27 states across America still have the death penalty.

They are Alabama, Arizona, Arkansas, California, Florida, Georgia, Idaho, Indiana, Kansas, Kentucky. Louisiana, Mississippi, Missouri, Montana, Nebraska, Nevada, North Carolina, Ohio, Oklahoma, Oregon, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, South Dakota, Tennessee, Texas, Utah and Wyoming.

The latest execution took place in Missouri just 2 days ago when Ernest Lee Johnson was executed by lethal injection at 6:11 p.m despite objections from many - including the Pope - citing his intellectual disabilities.

For many critics of the United States’ policy on the death penalty, one of the most troubling aspects is how inconsistently it’s applied.

While capital punishment is used in more than 1/2 of the country’s states, in addition to the federal death penalty, the likelihood of an execution actually taking place, and the potential for a prolonged, painful or inhumane death if it does, vary wildly.

For example, death by firing squad is a possibility in South Carolina, while in Texas it may be a lethal injection of pentobarbital, which experts say can cause “excruciating pain”, such as in the case of the execution of Wesley Purkey in 2020.

Across the 27 states that still use capital punishment, lethal injection is by far the most common method. But many pharmaceutical companies refuse to supply the required drugs, which has led to states authorising deaths that are potentially far less humane.

This has been the case in South Carolina, which in May instituted a law requiring death row inmates to choose between being put to death by electric chair or firing squad. They can only choose lethal injection “if it is available at the time of election”, and it currently is not.

Electrocution takes place in 8 states and gas chambers are authorised in 7. 3 states – Delaware, New Hampshire, and Washington – still permit hanging. Four states – Mississippi, Oklahoma, Utah, and South Carolina – allow for death by firing squads.

The frequency of people put to death is also markedly different across the country. Texas has put 573 people to death since 1976, according to the Death Penalty Information Center. Virginia comes in at a distant 2nd, with 113 executions in that time period, followed by Oklahoma with 112, Florida with 99, and Missouri with 90.

Exacerbating the inconsistency, federal death penalties may or may not be carried out at all, depending on the views of the president or attorney general of the time. Under the Trump administration, the use of federal executions skyrocketed, with 13 inmates put to death during Mr Trump’s final year in office – an astonishing figure given that there had not been a single federal execution since 2003.

Federal death row and a moratorium


Many argue that the constitutional concept of equal protection under the law is deeply compromised under this system. Reflecting the growing discomfort in the United States with the current state of affairs, Attorney General Merrick Garland issued a moratorium in July this year on federal executions while ordering a review of the Justice Department’s policies.

In a statement, Mr Garland said, “The Department of Justice must ensure that everyone in the federal criminal justice system is not only afforded the rights guaranteed by the Constitution and laws of the United States, but is also treated fairly and humanely,” adding, “That obligation has special force in capital cases.”

In a memo to the Justice Department, he addressed the whiplash policy change by saying: “Serious concerns have been raised about the continued use of the death penalty across the country, including arbitrariness in its application, disparate impact on people of color, and the troubling number of exonerations in capital and other serious cases. Those weighty concerns deserve careful study and evaluation by lawmakers. In the meantime, the Department must take care to scrupulously maintain our commitment to fairness and humane treatment.”

As it stands, that leaves the eventual fate of the 45 prisoners currently on federal death row hanging in the balance.

Possible reform


Attitudes are changing in some states against the death penalty.

A bill in Utah’s State Legislature would ‘repeal and replace’ the practice with Governor Spencer Cox admitting he may not block it.

“I’ve been supportive of the death penalty in the past but certainly I’ve had occasion to reevaluate... my feelings about the death penalty,” Gov. Cox said last week. “I think certainly anytime we take a life, especially government taking a life, it’s a very conservative thing to do to pause and make sure we get that one right.”

The move would remove executions and replace them with a 45 years to life prison sentence. The state currently has seven prisoners on death row who would still face death even if the bill is carried.

Virginia lawmakers vote to abolish death penalty

In Ohio, Governor Mike DeWine has delayed the 4 executions scheduled in the state until next year.

He stated “ongoing problems involving the willingness of pharmaceutical suppliers to provide drugs” as the reason for the delay while a bill commute the death sentence across the state is still being discussed.

Racist, ineffective, expensive and error-prone


The Independent and the nonprofit Responsible Business Initiative for Justice (RBIJ) have launched a joint campaign calling for an end to death penalty in the US. The RBIJ has attracted more than 150 well-known signatories to their Business Leaders Declaration Against the Death Penalty - with The Independent as the latest on the list.

We join high-profile executives like Ariana Huffington, Facebook’s Sheryl Sandberg, and Virgin Group founder Sir Richard Branson as part of this initiative and are making a pledge to highlight the injustices of the death penalty in our coverage.

Writing for The Independent today, the group’s CEO Celia Ouellette makes it plain why the death penalty has to stop.

“The statistics that exemplify the death penalty’s glaring flaws bear repeating here. It’s racist – you are four times more likely to receive a death sentence if you are Black than if you are white, for an equivalent crime. It’s ineffective – states that practice it have higher murder rates. It’s incredibly expensive – to execute someone costs $2 million more than a life sentence. It’s unacceptably error-prone – for every eight people executed, one innocent person is exonerated’.

Source: independent.co.uk, Staff, October 8, 2021


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"One is absolutely sickened, not by the crimes that the wicked have committed,
but by the punishments that the good have inflicted." -- Oscar Wilde

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