Ohio Should Just Stop Killing People

Back in 2010, the pharmaceutical giant Hospira Inc. asked Ohio to not use its drug, the anesthetic sodium thiopental, in executions.  Ohio, like other states, refused, so Hospira stopped making the drug.

Then Ohio, like other states, switched to a new anesthetic called pentobarbital.  Its manufacturer, Lundbeck, also asked Ohio to not use it in executions.   Again, Ohio, like other states, refused.   Lundbeck is now actively taking steps to prevent future batches of this drug from getting into the hands of executioners.  So, with 12 executions scheduled between now and May 2013, Ohio is facing yet another execution drug shortage.

What now?  Ohio is considering switching drugs again.  Its choices include a drug that helped kill Michael Jackson (propofol), or a combination of drugs that could cause convulsions or vomiting (midazolam and hydromorphone).  (No word on whether Ohio might consider even cheaper alternatives.)


Georgia's Shady Death Penalty Drug Deals

As George Costanza once said: “This thing is like an onion:  the more layers you peel, the more it stinks!

On June 23, Georgia intends execute Roy Blankenship.  For the first time they plan to use Nembutol, the anesthetic they acquired to replace sodium thiopental in their lethal injection protocols (their supply of sodium thiopental was seized by the DEA).

Lundbeck, the Nembutol’s Danish manufacturer has written a second letter demanding that their drug not be used in state killing, now pointing out that the they “cannot assure the associated safety” of the drug.

You can read both letters here.


European Drugs And U.S. Executions

Ever since the production of the anesthetic sodium thiopental was discontinued by its U.S. source (Hospira, Inc.), because of concerns over its use in executions, pentobarbital has rapidly become the anesthetic of choice for U.S. executioners.  Alabama, Arizona, Mississippi, Ohio, Oklahoma, South Carolina, and Texas have already carried out executions with it.

Denmark-based Lundbeck is the company whose version of pentobarbital (known as Nembutal) has been used in all these executions, and is slated to be used in at least 6 of the 7 executions scheduled for the rest of June.  (Georgia officials claim they have a different version of pentobarbital, provided to them by Cardinal Health of Ohio; Lundbeck says its drug HAS been sold to Georgia.)

Lundbeck has always objected to the use of its drug in executions, stating things like: “This is fully against what we stand for.”   But prison officials in executing states have been unmoved by this rhetoric.  So now, after some aggressive prompting from campaigning groups like Reprieve, Lundbeck says they are planning to take things up a notch.


EU Should Ban Trade Of Death Penalty Drugs To US

Lethal injectionLast October, Arizona executed Jeffrey Landrigan using sodium thiopental imported from England.  Other states also acquired this drug from the UK – but many of them (but not Arizona) have since had their supply confiscated by the DEA.

One of those states is Georgia which, in seeking to execute Troy Davis, is now scrambling to find an alternative drug.  Last Friday it appeared that they were close to a decision to replace sodium thiopental with pentobarbital.  This latter is rapidly becoming the drug of choice for our nation’s executioners, as Ohio, Oklahoma, Texas and Mississippi have all switched to it.

The company that makes the drug these four states are using, Lundbeck, is also based in Europe (Denmark), although the drug itself may be manufactured in the US.  The EU is supposed to have a ban on the trade in “tools of torture”, but a loophole allowed these exports of lethal injection drugs from the UK last fall, and this loophole clearly needs to be closed.  That is why Amnesty International is promoting a petition to José Manuel Barroso, President of the European Commission, to ban the use of EU sourced drugs for US executions.

While these drugs should be banished from US execution chambers, Amnesty is not calling for an end to the manufacture or exporting of drugs which have legitimate and important medical uses; simply for the EU to insist that these drugs don’t end up being used for the opposite of their intended purpose – for killing instead of healing.

Denmark Company Supplies Major U.S. Executioners

“It is not, nor it cannot come to good.” – Hamlet

The European nation of Denmark is about to embark on executions in a big way.  Danish pharmaceutical company Lundbeck has sold pentobarbital to four of the most prolific executing states in the U.S.: Mississippi, Ohio, Oklahoma, and Texas.  These states already have, and will continue to use Lundbeck’s product for executions.  Pentobarbital is emerging as the replacement for sodium thiopental, which was once the drug used in all lethal injections in the U.S., but now has become increasingly hard to get.

Campaigners in Europe have attempted to convince Lundbeck to prevent the drug from winding up in U.S. execution facilities.  Lundbeck has objected, verbally, to the use of its product in executions, telling the New York TimesThis is fully against what we stand for.  We are in the business of improving people’s lives.” But so far Lundbeck has not taken any effective action.

Campaigns to limit exports of sodium thiopental, the drug pentobarbital is replacing, have been successful, albeit after several states already acquired a supply (one state, Georgia, has had its supply confiscated by the DEA).   The UK has banned the drug’s export to the U.S. for executions, and an Italian factory ceased production of the drug entirely.  Governments in Austria and Germany have preemptively warned pharmaceutical companies in their respective countries not to allow sodium thiopental to be exported to the U.S. for executions.

It remains to be seen if Denmark and Lundbeck will ultimately restrict the export of pentobarbital.

Sodium thiopental is a general anesthetic  used in surgical procedures.  Pentobarbital is used for controlling epilepsy.  Life-saving, life-improving drugs, in both cases.  Restricting their availability will do harm to the quality of legitimate health care in the U.S.

I’ve written before about the degrading nature of the death penalty; about how deliberately killing human beings violates our most basic values and thus degrades and damages everyone involved.  That ordinary Americans in need of medical care might suffer because some states insist on killing prisoners is yet more evidence of that.

Georgia Execution Drugs Seized by DEA

Yesterday, the DEA seized Georgia’s supply of sodium thiopental, the anesthetic most states use as the first drug in a three drug cocktail to execute prisoners, explaining that there are “questions about how the drug was imported to the U.S.”

States have been importing sodium thiopental because the one US-based, FDA-approved manufacturer, Hospira, has ceased production over concerns about its use in executions.  Georgia, Arizona, Arkansas, California and Tennessee have all imported this drug from non-FDA approved sources in the U.K., and Nebraska recently acquired a large quantity from a non-FDA approved source in India.

Attorneys in Georgia in particular have objected that the drug came from a “fly-by-night supplier operating from the back of a driving school in England.” Raised in advance of the execution of Emmanuel Hammond in January, these concerns, though ignored by the courts, apparently were noticed by the DEA.

Outside the U.S., Swiss-based Novartis, the company responsible for a generic, non-Hospira version of sodium thiopental recently announced its intention to prevent its drug from being used in executions.  And Denmark-based Lundbeck, maker of pentobarbital, the substitute drug currently being used by Oklahoma and Ohio, has also strongly objected to the use of their product in the killing of prisoners.

The fundamental problem is this: carrying out executions with drugs meant for healing is an unresolvable and unsustainable breach of basic medical ethics (not to mention human rights). States like Georgia sneaking around and skirting the rules to import the drugs just makes it worse.

Will Ohio Carry Out an Execution Nobody Wants?

Johnnie Baston was sentenced to death in Ohio for the murder of Chong Hoon Mah, a South Korean immigrant.  Baston’s execution date is March 10.  At his clemency hearing last month, one of the prosecutors from the original trial emphasized that Chong Mah’s family does not want Baston executed. In fact, the family never supported the death penalty, even at the time of the trial.

Yet the Ohio Parole Board voted unanimously to reject clemency.  

The March 10 execution, if it is carried out, will be the first in which Ohio uses pentobarbital, an anesthetic selected to replace sodium thiopental, which is no longer made by an FDA-accredited company.  But the manufacturer of the pentobarbital Ohio plans to use has objected strenuously to its product being employed in any execution.  Lundbeck, based in Denmark, wrote Ohio officials saying:

“Lundbeck is dedicated to saving people’s lives. Use of our products to end lives contradicts everything we’re in business to do.”

So far, Ohio officials have been unmoved by this appeal to medical ethics.

Ohio’s death penalty has acquired a kind of blind bureaucratic momentum that makes it difficult to stop an execution even when nobody wants it.  Fortunately, the Governor of Ohio does have the power to overrule the Parole Board’s advisory opinion and grant clemency. 

He should, and we can encourage him to do so.

Maryland Death Penalty Meets Globalization

As Maryland officials attempt to develop a lethal injection protocol that is acceptable to the courts, they have run into an unexpected roadblock – Globalization.   Pharmaceutical companies that produce the drugs used in executions are for the most part multi-national entities, either headquartered in Europe or with large business interests in that region. Capital punishment has been banished in Europe.  Extraditing suspects who might face the death penalty is forbidden, and exporting materials that might be used for executions has now come under intense scrutiny.

Sodium thiopental, the anesthetic Maryland (and all other executing states) had been using as the first drug in its three-drug protocol, was produced by Hospira, at a factory in Italy.  Now, because of controversy over its use in executions, Hospira will no longer make the drug at all.  A generic version of sodium thiopental is manufactured by a subsidiary of Swiss-based Novartis, but that company has announced it will take all steps necessary to prevent its export to the US.  An alternative to sodium thiopental, pentobarbital, which has been used in Oklahoma and may soon be used in Ohio, is made by a company called Lundbeck, based in Denmark.  That company has already gone on record objecting to the use of their drug in executions, and it may only be a matter of time before Lundbeck takes steps to ensure that their drug doesn’t wind up in US execution chambers.


Ohio Sets 7 Execution Dates

Ohio (aka Texas north) has just set 7 new execution dates – meaning there is now an execution in the state scheduled each and every month between February and October.  Ohio officials are claiming that the change to a new execution drug, announced just two weeks ago, had nothing to do with this sudden splurge in execution dates. 

Also having nothing to do with it are the beliefs of the Ohio Supreme Court judge who was an architect of Ohio’s death penalty law, the former director of Ohio’s prisons who personally witnessed 33 executions, and Ohio’s Catholic bishops, all of whom have called for Ohio to stop executions and get rid of the death penalty.

The wishes of the company that makes the drug Ohio intends to use for all these new executions are also apparently irrelevant.  Ohio is turning to pentobarbital because sodium thiopental is no longer available from an FDA approved manufacturer, but Denmark-based Lundbeck, the only manufacturer of an injectable form of pentobarbital, has demanded that its product NOT be used for the killing of prisoners, stating bluntly:

“Lundbeck is dedicated to saving people’s lives. Use of our products to end lives contradicts everything we’re in business to do.”

The setting of 7 new death dates indicates that, so far, nothing has been able to halt the bureaucratic and/or political momentum driving prisoners into Ohio’s execution chamber.

But the chorus of voices opposing executions in Ohio is growing.