4 States That Are Trying – and Failing – to Find a More Humane Way to Kill

The U.S. death penalty is floundering for a variety of reasons, not least of which is the growing awareness that errors can go uncorrected and lead to executions of the innocent (Photo Credit: Joe Raedle/Newsmakers).
The U.S. death penalty is floundering for a variety of reasons, not least of which is the growing awareness that errors can go uncorrected and lead to executions of the innocent (Photo Credit: Joe Raedle/Newsmakers).

At the end of this October, we learned that public support for the death penalty is at its lowest in 40 years. And while three states (AZ, FL, TX) did manage to carry out 5 executions (Arizona and Florida killed twice) this month, several states were forced to scramble to get the drugs they need to kill their prisoners “humanely.”

Of course, there is no humane way to deliberately kill a human being; it’s a fundamentally inhumane act. Pharmaceutical companies and health professionals continue to resist being dragged into this degrading quagmire. But U.S. states keep trying.

On Oct. 15, Florida executed William Happ with a chemical cocktail that included a new and untested execution drug, midazolam hydrochloride. Happ had rejected legal efforts to save his life.

According to Reuters:

“Happ appeared to remain conscious for a longer time and made more body movements than prisoners executed under a previous formula.”

public support for the death penalty is at its lowest in 40 years (Photo by FPG/Hulton Archive/Getty Images).
Public support for the death penalty is at its lowest in 40 years (Photo by FPG/Hulton Archive/Getty Images).

Missouri (which briefly flirted with the idea of bringing back the gas chamber) had also planned to use a new execution drug this month: propofol. But Fresenius Kabi, the German company that manufactured their supply of the drug, demanded that it be returned. On Oct. 10, Missouri announced it would do so. While welcoming this development, the German company “warned that the use of propofol in any execution could still lead to sanctions against the U.S.

Less than two weeks later, Missouri proclaimed it would be using a different execution drugpentobarbital – to be acquired from a “compounding” pharmacy.

Compounding pharmacies put together pharmaceutical concoctions on a small scale without oversight of the FDA or accreditation from the Pharmacy Compounding Accreditation Board. Last year, a compounding pharmacy was “found to be the source of an outbreak of fungal meningitis that infected over 700 people and killed 61 people.”

Texas has also turned to compounding pharmacies for its killing needs. In early October, the pharmacist who provided Texas with its execution drug demanded it back (after being outed by the press). Texas, of course, flatly refused.

On October 28, Ohio, having failed to find a cooperative compounding pharmacy, announced it would be using another different, untested execution cocktail. According to the Christian Science Monitor:

“Ohio says it will use a combination of the drugs midazolam, a sedative, and hydromorphone, a painkiller, in the execution of Ronald Phillips, scheduled for Nov. 14. The state said on Monday that it had looked for a compounding pharmacy as an alternative pentobarbital supplier but had been unsuccessful.”

So, is all this fervent activity heading somewhere, or does it amount to rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic?

Also on October 28, the Attorney General of Arkansas, a death penalty supporter, told the National Journal:

“Our system is completely broken, and I don’t know how to say it more bluntly than that. It’s a complete impossibility. I can no more flap my arms and fly across the state than I can carry out an execution.”

The U.S. death penalty is floundering for a variety of reasons, not least of which is the growing awareness that errors can go uncorrected and lead to executions of the innocent. But the fundamental cruelty of executions is not lost on people either; that’s the reason states stopped using the electric chair.

The medicalization of executions has not made them less cruel (nor could it have), and it seems likely that those in the field of medicine will continue to object to their profession being tainted in this way. More months like this October are probably on the horizon.