While the use and public approval of the death penalty has declined, and many prestigious law firms take on death row inmates as pro bono clients, some states are looking for a work around to continue executing inmates despite the recent shortage of the drugs used in lethal injections.
Tennessee’s Republican governor, Bill Haslam, approved a law which would allow the Volunteer State to execute death row inmates using the electric chair, if prisons did not have the appropriate lethal injection drugs. Although some states allow death row inmates to choose the method of their ultimate demise, Tennessee’s new rule would impose electrocution as the method of execution.
Wyoming may also be returning to an older form of executrion. A state legislative committee has requested that staff draft a bill allowing for prisoners to be executed by firing squad. Wyoming is out of lethal injection drugs, and although state law allows for execution by gas chamber, the state doesn’t have one. Lawmakers are also considering banning the death penalty entirely.
A Republican senator in Utah plans to introduce the firing squad as a method of execution in the next legislation session although the state outlawed the method in 2004. Missouri is also considering a proposal to execute inmates by firing squad or gas chamber.
Most states use a three-drug cocktail to execute inmates that was upheld by the Supreme Court in 2008. The first injection anesthetizes, the second paralyzes and the third stops the heart. Pentothal (sodium thiopental) is the first injection and used to prevent the inmate from feeling pain as the third shot, potassium chloride, stops the heart.
In 2011, the U.S.-based pharmaceutical company Hospira chose to stop manufacturing Pentothal stating that American prisons were using the drug in executions against its wishes. Death penalty states soon began scrambling for the drug, attempting to barter with other states for the drug and allegedly dipping into the black market. Questionable importation of the drug led to the Drug Enforcement Administration to seize stockpiles of sodium thiopental. States who attempted to switch from sodium thiopental to the short-acting anesthetic pentorbarbital soon lost access to the drug when the Denmark-based company from whom states were receiving the drug decided to end distribution to death penalty states.
Death rows now rely on compounding pharmacies to purchase the drugs necessary for the lethal cocktail. Compounding pharmacies offer customized medicines and typically fall outside of the scope of the Food and Drug Administration. Although made-to-order, lethal injection drugs from compounding pharmacies may not provide the easy death that they are supposed to, as inmates being executed have shown distress, one calling out that he could feel his whole body burning in his final moments. Another striking example of the danger of using the untested drugs is the recent botched execution of Clayton Lockett, a convicted murder, who died of a heart attack 40 minutes after the initial administration of the drug cocktail.
As death penalty states return to older seemingly more barbaric forms of execution, the firing squad, gas chamber and electric chair should be a reminder of what the state is really doing. The state is killing someone. Although the condemned committed a heinous crime (or didn’t), the inmate is not simply drifting off to sleep, the state is taking affirmative steps to end his or her life. Perhaps the public and the state should not be shielded from the horror of an execution by a lethal injection that allows the inmate to simply fade away. Before sentencing someone to death, we should all be aware of exactly what’s happening; no matter how uncomfortable that makes us.
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