States scramble to find alternatives as lethal injection drugs run out

States are turning to alternatives as a major shortage of lethal injection drugs have hit the United States and European companies refuse to provide them. Photo: Lethal injection table/ AP

WASHINGTON, October 31, 2013 — A drug used in lethal injections has reached critical shortage levels in the United States. The shortage has forced states to find alternatives in untested drugs which are already leading to court cases and delaying scheduled executions.

As some states continue to carry out the scheduled executions, prisoner advocates are asking federal courts to declare them unconstitutional and in violations of the Eighth Amendment’s protection against cruel and unusual punishment.

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The shortage began in January 21, 2011 when a company, Hospira, announced that they were no longer willing to supply drugs to be used in execution protocols. Hospirs’s press release stated that they were in the business of creating injectable medication for the purpose of saving lives not ending them, and therefore would no longer supply prisons with sodium thiopental.

Executions continued, using the stockpile of sodium thiopental until this fall, when the supply started either running out or expiring, forcing states to come up with additional options.

William Happ had been sentenced to death for the 1986 kidnapping, rape and murder of 21 year old Angie Crowley.

According to the Daily Mail, Happ made a surprise confession to the crime as his last words before his execution on October 15, 2013, using the drug Midazolam.

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The Daily Mail also reported that there was more movement from Happ after the first drug was administered than there had been with the traditional injection and that it seemed to take longer than usual.

After Happ’s execution, seven other Florida inmates have filed papers in Jacksonville, Orlando, Ocala and Tampa to stop executions in the state for violation of the Eighth Amendment. The first of those hearings is scheduled for November 6.

Florida has its next execution scheduled for November 12. At this time that inmate has not made any legal move to prevent his execution.

To add to the difficulty the prisons are facing, Hospira released additional information on its website stating that the company has learned of the plan to use Midazolam, hydromorphone, rocuronium bromide and vecuronium bromide in lethal injections and has added these drugs to the list of restricted distribution so no prison will be able to obtain them.

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Missouri Governor Jay Nixon stayed an execution scheduled for October 23, 2013 because it had planned to use propofol, a popular anesthetic used in the United States but manufactured in Germany.

Once the plan was announced, the European Union threatened sanctions of the drug in the United States if it was used as part of an execution. Since a shortage of propofol in the United States would affect millions of patients each year, Nixon stayed the execution and returned the drug to the manufacturer according to a Missouri Department of Corrections Press Release on October 9, 2013.

Missouri’s next execution is scheduled for November 20, 2013 but it is unclear how that execution will be carried out. Missouri’s state senator, Kurt Schaefer has proposed funding the construction of a new gas chamber since the state no longer has one.

In order to bypass the European drug companies, states have started to investigate compounding pharmacies for a medication supply.

Compounding pharmacies are used when a patient has unusual medication needs and are not regulated by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.

Compounding medications are most often used when an extremely low dose is needed, such as for an infant, it needs to be in liquid or pill form which is not the common method and when a drug is in short supply.

States decided to withhold the details about where the drugs are coming from most likely in an effort to avoid any pressure being put on these pharmacies by advocates against the death penalty causing another avenue, and possibly one of the last, to be closed to the prison system.

An inmate on death row in Georgia, Warren Hill, challenged the secrecy surrounding where and how the drugs were made and a judge ruled that it was unconstitutional because it interfered with an inmate’s right to challenge the method of execution. It is expected that the state will appeal the ruling but in the meantime, executions in the state are on hold.

Texas carried out the execution of Michael Yowell for the murder of his parents on October 9, 2013 despite the drug controversies. The owner of The Woodlands Compounding Pharmacy, Jasper Lovoi, requested that the drug pentobarbital be returned to his pharmacy but Texas prison officials refused. Lovoi has claimed that he was promised anonymity when he sold eight does of the drug but that his name has been released and he is now relieving death threats. Texas now has enough of the drug to carry out executions throughout the rest of the year.

The next scheduled execution is in Ohio on November 14, of Ronald Philips for the rape and killing of his girlfriend’s 3 year old daughter in 1993.

Philips is set for execution

Philips is scheduled to be executed with an untested combination of drugs. A lawsuit has been filed on his behalf questioning the safety and effectiveness of the drugs as well as the methods in which they were manufactured since they were created by a compounding pharmacy.

Compounding pharmacy’s have come under increased scrutiny after a meningitis outbreak in Massachusetts in 2012 after a steroid injection created in a compounding environment became tainted with mold.

While states look toward different methods of execution, there are sure to be a large number of court cases based on the Eighth Amendment.

The AP contributed to this article

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Susan L Ruth

Susan L. Ruth is a long-time Washington, DC resident with extensive ties throughout the community.  She is a genealogical researcher and writer, and is an active volunteer in the Northern Virginia competitive swimming community.  Susan previously worked providing life-skills to head injured adults. 

Susan and her husband Kerry currently live in Northern Virginia with their three sons, Ryley, Casey and Jack and their American Bulldog, Leila.


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