A NATIONAL shortage of lethal drugs used to execute prisoners has Ohio preparing to overhaul its execution process for the third time in four years. With an execution set for next month, the state should not rush into an imprudent and possibly inhumane procedure.
Shortages are forcing states to scramble to find drugs that are convenient or available, even if they are not adequately tested. Given the lack of national standards on how executions should proceed, Gov. John Kasich ought to halt them in Ohio until the state has time to select a method — including a drug or multidrug cocktail — that it can be sure is humane, reliable, efficient, and tested.
The drug shortages are largely created by manufacturers who, not surprisingly, are refusing on moral grounds to assist corrections departments with drugs used for lethal injections. That has forced states to buy custom-made drugs from compounding, or specialty, pharmacies that the U.S. Food and Drug Administration does not regulate.
Other states have turned to untested methods such as propofol, best known as the drug that killed Michael Jackson, without knowing how much pain it causes or even what dose it should administer. As expediency trumps morality, the process has become almost haphazard — and increasingly open to legal and constitutional challenge.
Last week, Ohio reportedly used the last of its supply of pentobarbital, a powerful sedative, to execute convicted murderer Harry Mitts, Jr. The state Department of Rehabilitation and Correction has refused to comment on the drug shortage or what alternative it might select. Asked before the execution whether the next lethal injection would use a different drug, DRC Director Gary Mohr declined to discuss the state’s options.
What’s the big deal? If a change in procedure is necessary or warranted, voters and taxpayers, as well as their elected representatives, ought to have an opportunity to debate the issue. Ohio will likely tell a federal court by Friday how it plans to proceed. Still, until now, the Kasich administration has treated the matter with undue secrecy.
In 2011, Ohio became the first state to use pentobarbital alone for a lethal injection. The drug wasn’t created to kill people. It is most commonly used to euthanize animals and treat seizures.
The drug’s maker, Denmark-based Lundbeck, opposes its use in death-penalty cases and has stopped selling the product to corrections departments. Another widely used drug, sodium thiopental, has also been kept from corrections departments after European employees of its manufacturer objected.
Ohio started using capital punishment — public hangings — when it became a state in 1803. In 1897, the electric chair replaced the gallows. In 2001, lethal injection became Ohio’s sole method of administering the death penalty.
Since 1977, after the U.S. Supreme Court lifted a moratorium on executions, states that impose capital punishment have generally regarded lethal injections as more humane than the electric chair, gas chamber, or firing squad. But some doctors now question that view, especially given executioners’ lack of medical training and the secrecy surrounding capital-case medical records.
Witnesses to a Florida execution in 2006 said they saw gasping and grimacing during a procedure that took more than 30 minutes. Other executions have taken as long as 90 minutes. In the unsettling business of how states execute people, enough questions remain for Ohio to hit pause on its killing machine.