Doctors Demand Restrictions On Another Execution Drug

PANCURONIUM_BROMIDE lethal injection drug death penaltyOver the past year numerous pharmaceutical companies have tried to distance themselves from lethal injections (sometimes voluntarily, sometimes under pressure).  Until now, all these efforts involved the use of an anesthetic, the first drug in 3-drug execution protocols, or the only drug in one-drug protocols.  First Hospira, then Novartis, Lundbeck, Kayem and Naari have all objected to the use of their anesthetic products in U.S. executions.

Now, Hospira is under fire for pancuronium bromide, which is the second drug in all 3-drug execution protocols in the U.S.  Hospira is the sole provider of this drug for executions; it’s a muscle-relaxant that in executions is used to induce paralysis.  Paralysis during executions makes the condemned look like he’s peacefully falling asleep even if he’s in excruciating pain.  This makes the witnesses to the execution feel better.  Ironically, this masking of possible pain is why pancuronium bromide is widely banned in the euthanizing of animals.


Death Penalty Downward Spiral Continues

Exonerated Gary Drinkard death penalty

Gary Drinkard was on death row in Alabama for 6 years before he was exonerated. © Scott Langley

As we approach the end of another year, the time for annual reports is at hand.  For the death penalty, this means the yearly report from the Death Penalty Information Center, as well as the year-end report from the Texas Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty.   Both reports show that in 2011 the downward trends we have been observing for several years in the United States continued or even accelerated.

Texas carried out its lowest number of executions (13) since 1996.  Nationwide, the 43 executions carried out represented about half the number that were put to death in the year 2000, and U.S. death sentences dropped well below 100 for the first time since capital punishment was reinstated in 1976.


The Shady World Of Execution Drug Trafficking

Once upon a time, Chris Harris was a broker for Kayem Pharma, a small India-based pharmaceutical company that sold sodium thiopental, an anesthetic that, in addition to its legitimate health care uses, has been used to kill over 1,000 prisoners in the U.S.  Late last year, he brokered a sale of sodium thiopental to the states of Nebraska and South Dakota, states that have collectively carried out exactly one execution this century.  Nebraska paid just over $2,000 for enough of the drug (500 grams) for 166 executions (there are 12 people on Nebraska’s death row), while pledging it would not be reselling the drug to other states.

Why so much?  That is not clear, but eventually the DEA ruled that it had all been imported illegally anyway and could not be used.  Kayem, meanwhile, expressed dismay that their drug would be used for executions, saying that it violated their “ethos of Hinduism”.   Angry emails between company headquarters and its U.S. agents, with epithets like “drug peddlers” and “piece of sh*t thief”, flew back and forth.  Chris Harris was fired for “indulging in activities detrimental to Company interest.”


Rick Perry By The Numbers

Rick Perry

(Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images)

Amnesty International does not comment or take sides on elections.  But everyone knows that Rick Perry, Texas Governor for over a decade, is now running for President.  And everyone knows that during his tenure as Texas Governor, he has presided over a lot of executions. The total now sits at 234 (40% of all US executions carried out since Perry became Governor in December 2000).

Many folks also know that at least one of those, Cameron Todd Willingham, was probably innocent, and that evidence of his innocence was ignored by Governor Perry in the days and hours before Willingham was put to death.  And that an investigation into the dubious forensics that led to Willingham’s conviction was sidetracked when Perry suddenly put Williamson County District Attorney John Bradley in charge (Bradley is now being accused of withholding evidence of innocence in a case in his home county).

But there have been other cases of possible innocence, and, as currently scheduled, Perry’s 240th execution would be of Henry Skinner, a man whose innocence claim the Lone Star State is refusing to examine.



Will Bahrain Carry Out Four Executions?

When, back in 2001, King Shaikh Hamad bin ‘Issa Al Khalifa of Bahrain freed hundreds of political prisoners and announced a new national charter, there was a real sense of hope that human rights and meaningful political reform were on the way. Sadly, since then, respect for human rights in Bahrain has been in steady decline; in recent months it has been in freefall.  The possibly imminent execution of four men sentenced to death in a secretive military court could mark its final collapse.

The four men, Ali Abdullah Hassan al-Sankis, Qassim Hassan Matar, Saeed Abduljalil Saeed and Adbulaziz Abdulridha Ibrahim Hussain, were sentenced to die for killing police officers during protests last month.  Three other men, Issa Abdullah Kadhim Ali, Sadeq Ali Mahdi and Hussein Jaafar Abdulkarim, were sentenced to life imprisonment.  All 7 maintain their innocence.

The crime for which these men were convicted is of course a serious one, but their convictions came after they were subjected to incommunicado detention, putting them at risk of torture, and after a closed-door trial in a special court created for the current state of emergency.  The state of emergency itself (or, “State of National Safety”) gives the government broad and vaguely defined powers with no human rights guarantees at all.

These death sentences also come in the midst of other grave human rights abuses, including torture, detention of protesters, and the deliberate targeting of medical professionals for doing nothing more than their professional duty. These are dark days for human rights in Bahrain, but the King can still pull his government back from the brink.  Overturning these death sentences would be a small but important first step.

U.S. in Top 5 For Executions Worldwide


First, the good news.  In 1961, the year Amnesty International was founded, only 9 countries had completely abolished the death penalty (10 if you count West Germany).  By 1977, the year Amnesty International simultaneously won the Nobel Peace Prize and took up death penalty abolition as a priority human rights cause, there were still only 16 such countries (plus West Germany).

Since then, there has been a sea change.  As documented in Amnesty International’s new report on Death Sentences and Executions in 2010, 96 countries have fully abolished capital punishment, while only 58 actively retain it (and only 23 carried out executions in 2010).  The remaining 43 nations have the death penalty on the books, but do not really use it.  So, basically, more than two-thirds of the world’s countries are living without the death penalty. (And thanks to Illinois, so are almost one-third of U.S. states.)

But 1977 was also the year that the United States resumed executions after a ten-year hiatus. During the next couple of decades, while most of the rest of the world was beginning to see the death penalty as a fundamental violation of human rights, the U.S. was pursuing executions in greater and greater numbers.  And while executions and death sentences have declined significantly in the U.S. over the last decade, the use of capital punishment has been collapsing at a much faster rate worldwide, so that in 2010, once again, the U.S. ranked in the top 5 of the world’s most prolific executioners.


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.

Forcible Medication Now, Lethal Injection Next

The medical profession, whose prime directive is “do no harm,” gets dragged into the mud when health care providers are required, or choose, to get involved in executions.  Back in January, Ty Alper, associate director of Berkeley Law School’s Death Penalty Clinic, wrote an important paper on the participation of doctors in executions, or rather the widespread failure to exclude their participation.  “Nearly all capital punishment states specifically call for doctors to be involved in some way,” he told Canada Views, which was reporting on an award he has received this week for his work.

But there are also ways outside of the execution chamber that health care professionals can contribute to the execution of a prisoner, in violation of their basic oath.  One area where the medical profession and the death penalty collide is in the execution of the mentally ill, a distressingly regular practice of our capital punishment system.  Tennessee, for example, is still scheduled to execute a seriously mentally ill man, Stephen West, on Nov. 9.  A similar execution in Texas has been postponed, as Lone Star State authorities try to forcibly medicate a severely mentally ill manSteven Kenneth Staley – so he can become temporarily competent enough to be put to death. 

Texas capital punishment and science have always had an uneasy relationship.  From trying to quash an investigation into bad forensic science, to paying psychiatrists (including Dr. James Grigson, aka “Dr. Death”) to convince juries of someone’s “future dangerousness”, to seeking to hide basic information about the drugs used for executions, to attempting to revive the scientifically invalid practice of scent lineups, Texas capital punishment enthusiasts have never had a problem taking steps that undermine the respectability of the medical and scientific professions. 

But even by these standards, if the state is calling on doctors, or other medical professionals, to forcibly medicate a man for the sole purpose of killing him, that is pretty low.

Medical Ethics and Executions: A New Development

lineedleThis weekend, the Washington Post reported that the American Board of Anesthesiology (ABA) decided in February to censure any of its members who participate in executions.  As the document outlining the policy states, bluntly: 

 “… anesthesiologists may not participate in capital punishment if they wish to be certified by the ABA.”

As members of the medical profession, anesthesiologists are bound by the oath to “do no harm,” and of course helping the state kill a prisoner violates that oath in the most fundamental and basic way.  According to the Post, anesthesiologists have been employed by executioners to “consult prison officials on dosages,” or “insert catheters and infuse the three-drug cocktails.”

This is not too big of a deal, since most states do not now use anesthesiologists, but the new policy is significant in that it has teeth.  Instead of being just another resolution decrying participation in executions (almost every association of medical professionals has already passed a resolution like that),  this one promises actual punishment and de-certification for anesthesiologists who chose to help the state put someone to death.   It will be interesting to see if other medical professions which have passed resolutions – physicians, emergency medical technicians (EMTs), nurses  – will follow suit and implement policies with some real consequences.

Ultimately, any states that still use anesthesiologists can simply stop using them, or alter their execution protocol, so this decision is likely to have little effect on executions.  But the American Board of Anesthesiology’s stand is symbolic of a growing recognition that the death penalty not only contradicts the ethics of one of our nation’s most prominent professions, but directly conflicts with one of our society’s most basic values:  the preservation of life.

New Global Death Penalty Stats Out Today

A Challenge to the Outliers

Today we released our annual report on global death penalty statistics.

The good news: the world has made progress toward upholding the fundamental right to life by continuing to decrease the use of the death penalty.

The bad news: a handful of countries are carrying on business as usual and need to hear the message more clearly that the time for global abolition has come!

Interesting Facts from the Report:

  • In 2009, 139 countries were death penalty free in law or practice.  (This is up from 16 countries in 1977, when Amnesty began working to abolish the death penalty.)  Burundi and Togo joined the list in 2009.
  • Executions happened in only 18 countries last year with five accounting for the lion’s share: China (thousands), Iran (388), Iraq (120), Saudi Arabia (69) and the US (52).
  • We know of 718 executions that happened in 2009 in addition to thousands from China.  And we know that at least 17,118 lived under sentence of death.
  • Only one country in Europe retains the death penalty – Belarus.  No one was executed in the continent last year.

The Outliers:

China remains the world’s top executioner by the numbers, with thousands being executed in 2009 as in past years.  We didn’t give a number for China’s executions for 2009.  The numbers we’ve given in the past are estimates based on independent, verified reports, but have always been gross underestimates.  China’s government continues to keep this number a state secret; yet, without revealing their records they claim executions have decreased.  So this year, rather than risk a low-ball number being misused, we challenge China to publish the numbers and move toward abolition.

The Middle East and North Africa region continues to lead in executions, per capita.  Just as in China, places like Iran and Iraq used the death penalty to send political messages.  Opponents were silenced and political agendas were furthered with executions.  Between the eight weeks between President Ahmadinejad’s election and inauguration, 112 executions were carried out – almost a third of Iran’s total number of executions in 2009.  Fortunately, however, Algeria, Lebanon, Morocco/Western Sahara and Tunisia did maintain longstanding moratoria on executions.

The US was the only country in the Americas and the only Western democracy to execute prisoners last year.  Fifty two people were put to death in the US last year, with Texas executing about half that number.  Overall, death sentences and executions have been on a downturn in the US in recent years and more state legislatures are seriously considering abolition.  Another welcome step was New Mexico’s repeal of the death penalty last March.  Fortunately, nine people were exonerated from death row, preventing wrongful executions.  This was another important sign for a public that needs to understand just how deeply flawed and broken the death penalty system truly is.  While there are glimmers of hope in the US for abolition, there is still a lot of work to be done to bring the “evolving standards of decency” up to international human rights standards.

We’re looking forward to the day, in the not very distant future, when dust collects on a series of annual reports we used to write about countries that once thought executing its citizens was an acceptable practice!

Help us work for that day!  Visit or email [email protected] to get involved.

Interim Secretary General of Amnesty International comments on the state of the death penalty in China.  View more video interviews »