Faced with a national shortage of a key drug used for lethal injections, Oklahoma now hopes to turn to an anesthetic used to put down animals and is awaiting a court ruling on the issue.
For months now, several US states have struggled to find supplies of sodium thiopental — the first and most crucial of three drugs used in lethal injections. The shortage has forced some states to put executions on hold.
“The reason the first drug matters so much is because ... if properly administered, it will put the inmate in a state of unconsciousness where he does not feel the second and third drug,” University of California, Berkeley professor Elisabeth Semel said. “If you use a different drug, an unknown drug, then you don’t know whether or not it has been mixed differently, whether or not the staff has the expertise to administer it properly.”
The only US pharmaceutical company that manufactures sodium thiopental, Hospira, is currently out of stock and will not be able to resume production until the first quarter of next year. And Hospira’s most recent batch is nearing its expiration date of next year.
Some states like Texas have enough thiopental to press ahead with their death row schedules, but others like Kentucky have been forced to put executions on hold.
On Oct. 27, Arizona executed 48-year-old Jeffrey Landrigan for a 1989 murder after importing the anesthetic from an undisclosed foreign manufacturer authorized by the US Supreme Court.
Oklahoma put to death Donald Wickerly, 41, on Oct. 14 after obtaining a dose of sodium thiopental from Arkansas.
Now on Dec. 16, Oklahoma plans to execute convicted murderer John Duty, 58, using the animal anesthetic pentobarbital, employed by veterinarians to put animals to sleep.
Duty’s lawyers in a court document worry their client will be used as a “guinea pig” to test this new method of execution.
“In the absence of expert evidence, clinical data, or other similarly sound application of scientific methods providing reliable information of expected outcomes, Mr Duty will be a human subject for an unproven mechanism of execution,” they said.
“The Supreme Court has acknowledged that the use of other drugs would be torturous if there is any problem with the first drug,” said capital punishment specialist Megan McCraken, referring to a 2008 decision.
Semel said the first anesthetic was key to the whole procedure, as “it’s used to render the inmate unconscious so that he will not suffer excruciating pain from the drug that is used to kill him, the last drug.”
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