Drug shortage forces states to reevaluate the death penaltyDeborah Denno in Deseret News, February 07, 2011
By Elizabeth Stuart
Published: Monday, Feb. 7, 2011 12:59 p.m. MST
States are scrambling to figure out a new way to execute the death penalty after a United States supplier announced last month the discontinued production of a key drug used in lethal injection, reported the New York Times
Thirty five states, including Utah, use the death penalty and most rely on a three-drug cocktail: one drug to render the inmate unconscious and two drugs to stop the heart and lungs.
Most states chose the three-drug cocktail because it was a more clinical method to administer death, Fordham University law professor Deborah Denno told the New York Times. Other methods like hanging or the gas chamber, are considered gruesome. The use of the electric chair declined after reports that it made inmates eyes pop out of their sockets. One inmate's head burst into flames.
Denno said there is one method that is quick, effective and doesn't depend on Europe: the firing squad.
"It's the most humane procedure," Denno said. "It's only because of this Wild West notion that people are against it."
Only three inmates have been killed by firing squad since 1976. All were in Utah, which changed its law in 2004 to require the use of lethal injection.
When Ronnie Lee Gardner requested execution by firing squad Utah last year, it attracted national attention . People protested the execution up until a few hours of Gardner's death
Hospir Inc., a drug manufacturer in Lake Forest, Ill., announced Jan. 21 that it would no longer produce the anesthetic sodium thiopental. It recently moved manufacturing from North Carolina to a more modern facility in Italy. Italian authorities demanded a guarantee that the drug would not be used to administer the death penalty and the company refused to deliver.
"We cannot take the risk that we will be held liable by the Italian authorities if the product is diverted for use in capital punishment," Hospira spokesman Dan Rosenberg said. "Exposing our employees or facilities to liability is not a risk we are prepared to take."
In spring 2009, the company sent a letter to all states notifying them that they "do not support the use of any of our products in capital punishment procedures."
The drug has been in short supply since early 2010, the Deseret News reported. Hospira Inc. is the only U.S. supplier. According to the Food and Drug Administration, there are no FDA-approved manufacturers of sodium thipental overseas. According to the New York Times, drug alternatives are limited and would most likely still leave states reliant on nations that oppose the death penalty.
The drug shortage has already delayed several executions. When Oklahoma tried to substitute a different drug, an anesthetic used in animal euthanasia, death row inmates objected, alleging the switch would be "cruel and unusual punishment"
After his execution, Gardner continued to move for two minutes, leaving media members to wonder if he would have to be shot again, the Deseret News reported.
Jennifer Dobner, who covered the execution for The Associated Press, said the shooting "was fast. It was almost clinical and very sanitary."
KUTV reporter Fields Mosely told the Deseret News he found it "very violent," however.
"It was exactly what I expected and a little bit worse," he said. "The loudness of the guns shocked me. Even though I grew up with a Winchester 30-30 in my home and shot it many times. … It was violent, and I didn't find it to be clinical at all."
Utah has nine men on death row.
Douglas Stewart Carter, who fatally stabbed and shot a Provo woman in 1985, is furthest along in the legal process, but is at least three years from an execution date, said Tom Brunker, assistant Attorney General. Carter has appeals pending in both state and federal court.