The death penalty is a legal sentence in 35 states across America, including the US military and the US federal government. While there have been many methods of execution used in US history, there are only five methods still used today, these are; lethal injection, electrocution, gas chamber, hanging and firing squad.
Lethal injection is the primary method of execution used for all of these states, with 1204 people executed since 1976. Electrocution is the second most used with 158 people executed since 1976, in 8 of these states. The other 3 are far less frequently used with gas chamber only accounting for 11 executions since 1976, and hanging and firing squad both acquiring 3 each. However, there is a bigger issue in the states at the moment, and that is getting access to the lethal injection drugs. The supply has been dwindling over recent years leading to hefty delays on executions and a concern over the future of death penalty. Will more states have to start looking for alternatives to the lethal injection? Or will it trigger a new debate over the use of the death penalty that could shape the judicial process in these states?
The Dwindling Supply
Most states use the 3 drug method for lethal injection, the drugs used are; pentobarbital (sedates the inmate), pancuronium bromide (paralyzes the inmate, including the diaphragm so breathing is impossible) and potassium chloride (which stops the heart and causes death). The main reason for the shortage of these drugs is mostly due to the European Union banning the export of these drugs in 2005 because of their disagreement with the death penalty. Richard Dieter, the executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center commented, “Europe, who opposes the death penalty strongly, came to realize that the drugs were being used in US executions, and that immediately sent up alarms”, since then states have been scrambling to find the drugs, or looking at alternative options.
The alternative options first were to look at different ways to access the drugs, and this meant using compounding pharmacies. There are a whole host of problems with compounding pharmacies, but most of them stem from this problem; they aren’t FDA regulated. Without the drugs being FDA regulated there is a chance of contamination, leading to botched executions, and it also doesn’t work as a fix – these pharmacies can’t trade across state lines, and lawyers for the inmates further also easily target them, preventing the executions taking place. This is only a problem for those states who can find compounding pharmacies willing to make the drugs, most pharmacies don’t want any part of it, which leads to the next alternative; using drugs that are largely untested or unsuitable for lethal injection. One of these drugs is Midazolam, which is a sedative and is responsible for the botched execution carried out in Oklahoma. Clayton Lockett took 43 minutes to die.
After the lethal injection drugs were administered, including Midazolam, Mr. Lockett went unconscious, everything seemed to plan, and then a mere 3 minutes later he regained consciousness and begin to violently struggle and attempt to speak, the official in the execution room then lowered the blinds to prevent others from watching. It took 43 minutes for Lockett to die, eventually from a heart attack caused by a ruptured vein. Of the 9 executions that have taken place using Midazolam, 3 of them have been a cause for concern, including the Oklahoma incident.
The shortage in supply of the lethal injection drugs and the not so promising alternatives could force some states into their looking at less popular methods of execution, or open a debate on whether executions should be taking place at all. Dieter commented “This might lead to a halt in executions until states can prove they can do it without problems. Someone was killed tonight by incompetence,” in reference to the Oklahoma incident, and further expanded “This could be a real turning point in the whole debate as people get disgusted by this sort of thing.” While this may only be one man’s word, it does pose a realistic implication of the changes about to take place. Support for the death penalty as punishment for murder while still at over 60% in the US, has steadily been declining since it’s peak in the early 90s, and for many people who live in a state where the death penalty is imposed, lethal injection is the only method they’ve ever known to be taking place and they’re comfortable with this, if lethal injection was to be scrapped or held to public scrutiny, then this may force an overhaul of current opinion. We could already be on the cusp of witnessing this change, with many states already looking for reinstate out-dated methods of execution. Tennessee has signed a bill in May 2014, that permits the use of the electric chair in instances when lethal injection drugs aren’t available, Wyoming since May 2014 have been looking into firing squad as their alternative method, Florida and Louisiana are both using untested or controversial drugs, and Missouri has considered reinstating the gas chamber to continue it’s executions, but is currently using a compounding pharmacy.
It looks like there could be a drastic change in the way the death penalty is carried out in America, with many states struggling to find the required drugs, they are turning to either unsafe, untested drugs from compounding pharmacies, or are looking at bringing back old methods of execution. The idea that this will spark a national debate on the use of the death penalty is a likely conclusion, I say this because the states that are struggling are in a way turning their back on their own people by not being transparent, and over such a serious issue, transparency is required, and is likely to rile a great number of people. There have long been laws in place requiring states to be transparent about where they obtain the lethal injection drugs from, but some states, such as Georgia have overturned these laws allowing for secrecy. The main reason for this desire for secrecy is to protect the compounding pharmacies from any legal pressure they may encounter, but the knock on effect is that we have untested and unsafe drugs people used to execute inmates, often in painful and prolonged ways, without any knowledge of what the drugs are or exactly where they came from.
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