The Shameful Spectacle Of Georgia’s Death Penalty

warren hill

Warren Hill

Less than half an hour before he was to be put to death, and after he had taken a sedative to prepare for his execution, Warren Hill was granted two simultaneous stays of execution – by a state court on a challenge to the method of his execution, and by the federal 11th circuit court of appeals on the substantive issue of his “mental retardation.”

Warren Hill has an IQ of 70 and has been declared by a state judge to be “mentally retarded” by a preponderance of the evidence. In other states, that would mean his execution would be an unconstitutionally cruel and unusual punishment.  But not in Georgia, where a prisoner must prove his “mental retardation” beyond a reasonable doubt, a virtual impossibility given the inexact science of measuring mental disability.

Add to this the fact that the victim’s family and several of the jurors from his trial now oppose his execution, and one wonders: why is the state of Georgia – which is seeking to lift the stays – trying so hard to kill Warren Hill?  Who is this execution for?


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 Ordered To Videotape Execution

Last night (July 20), Georgia was scheduled to execute Andrew Grant DeYoung, but postponed the execution 24 hours over questions that the state’s new three-drug cocktail inflicts unconstitutional levels of pain. If DeYoung is executed tonight, he will become the second death row inmate to be killed by Georgia with their new lethal injection protocol. Last month, Roy Blankenship was the guinea pig for this new procedure, and his death did not go as planned.

Georgia was forced to amend its execution procedure after its supply of sodium thiopental was surrendered to the DEA amid an investigation into that drug’s questionable origins abroad. Georgia then switched from sodium thiopental to pentobarbital, a drug whose Danish manufacturer explicitly opposes its use in executions.

Due to the unnecessary suffering apparent in Blankenship’s execution, a Georgia superior court judge ordered that DeYoung’s execution be videotaped for further private examination by the court. This would be the first such recording since a California execution in 1992. Georgia argued that the videotaping should not be permitted, but the Georgia Supreme Court denied the state’s attempt to prevent the recording.


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.

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.

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.

Ohio at Death Penalty Crossroads

(c) Scott Langley

As the pace of executions has accelerated in Ohio (it was second only to Texas is executions last year), the Buckeye State has been at the center of death penalty debates in the U.S.  Since the miserably failed execution of Romell Broom (in which he was subjected to two hours of unsuccessful attempts to find a vein suitable for injecting the lethal drugs) Ohio has twice switched execution protocols – first, moving to a one drug method (a massive dose of the anesthetic sodium thiopental), and now, as that drug’s manufacturer has taken it off the market, a one drug dose of a different anesthetic, pentobarbital, which is commonly used to put down animals

The first execution in Ohio to incorporate this new drug is scheduled for March 10.

Meanwhile, those who know Ohio’s death penalty the best have begun to assert that Ohio should just abolish the death penaltyOhio Supreme Court Justice Paul E. Pfeifer, who as a state Senator was largely responsible for enacting Ohio’s death penalty law, has called for an end to capital punishment in his state.  And Terry Collins, a former warden who personally witnessed 33 executions, has also urged Ohioans to give up the death penalty.

On the question of capital punishment, Ohio is moving simultaneously in two different directions.  Will Ohio ignore the voices of those most experienced with the death penalty and continue to execute prisoners at a record pace?  Or will the people of Ohio heed those voices and move to shut down Ohio’s incredibly dysfunctional death penalty once and for all?