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Cruel and unusual? Supply problems, botched executions renew lethal injection debate

The US is one of only a handful of countries that still carries out the death penalty on criminals. The US Constitution prohibits cruel and unusual punishment, so for many years, the preferred method of executing people in this country has been a lethal injection, delivered in the form of a cocktail of drugs. But the past decade has seen a series of high-profile botched executions due to new experimental compounds. Coupled with a supply shortage of reliable execution drugs, anti-death penalty advocates are calling for an immediate halt to the practice. Follow here for the latest news in the intensifying national debate over the morality of lethal injections and the lives of violent criminals.

  • Supreme Court rules states can use controversial drug in executions

    In a 5-4 decision, the United States Supreme Court has ruled that Oklahoma's lethal injection protocol, which makes use of the controversial drug midazolam, is protected by the constitution. In the short term, this decision means executions in the four states that use the drug will proceed as normal. It also deals a blow to the growing movement against the death penalty.

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  • Adi Robertson

    Dec 22, 2014

    Adi Robertson

    Arizona to change lethal injection drugs after botched execution

    Handout/Getty Images

    Arizona is changing the mixture of drugs it uses for lethal injections after an execution this summer left an inmate alive for almost two hours, the Associated Press reports. In a letter to Governor Jan Brewer, Department of Corrections Director Charles Ryan said that the state would be abandoning its current sedative and painkiller combination, potentially replacing it with an older alternative. The news comes in response to an independent report investigating the death of Joseph Rudolph Wood, a convicted murderer who was executed by lethal injection earlier this year. The process, which should have taken minutes to work, dragged on as Wood "gasped and snorted," eventually taking an hour and 57 minutes before he was pronounced dead. It's the latest incident to raise questions about whether lethal injection, adopted as a supposedly more humane alternative to older execution methods, can actually deliver a painless death.

    Wood's death is one of several failed or prolonged lethal injections. Earlier in 2014, Oklahoma inmate Clayton Lockett suddenly regained consciousness during his execution; it was stopped, but Lockett died soon after of a heart attack. The problem reportedly stemmed from a misplaced needle, and the White House condemned Lockett's death as inhumane. Oklahoma and Arizona, along with other states, have temporarily halted executions as they investigate the deaths.

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  • Nathan Ingraham

    Jul 24, 2014

    Nathan Ingraham

    Botched lethal injection takes nearly two hours to kill Arizona inmate

    An execution taking place in Arizona tonight appears to have gone horribly awry. According to a report from the Associated Press, inmate Joseph Rudolph Wood "gasped and snorted" and was still alive more than an hour after the execution began. Wood was not pronounced dead until 3:49PM MT, one hour and 57 minutes after the beginning of the procedure.

    Wood's lawyers filed an emergency appeal during the execution, noting that he was "gasping and snorting for more than an hour" but was still alive some 70 minutes after the execution began. The whole process should have taken 10 minutes, Wood's lawyers said.

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  • Josh Lowensohn

    May 8, 2014

    Josh Lowensohn

    Oklahoma delays man's execution by six months after botched effort on fellow inmate

    In the wake of an execution that left a prisoner dying of a painful heart attack, Oklahoma is delaying lethal injection for another man so that the matter can be fully investigated. Oklahoma's attorney general today said that he'd put off the execution of convicted murderer and rapist Charles Warner so that the state can finish looking into what led to the botched execution of prisoner Clayton Lockett, The New York Times reports. The mix of drugs Lockett was given last week left him awake during the second and third rounds of chemicals designed to stop breathing and then the heart, something the White House called inhumane.

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  • Russell Brandom

    Apr 30, 2014

    Russell Brandom

    White House says Oklahoma execution was inhumane

    In a press conference today, White House spokesman Jay Carney condemned the recent execution of Oklahoma prisoner Clayton Lockett, in which an unorthodox lethal injection cocktail resulted in violent convulsions and a ruptured vein for the prisoner. Carney said the execution was clearly inhumane, raising questions over whether it violated the constitutional prohibition on cruel and unusual punishment.

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  • Matt Stroud

    Apr 2, 2014

    Matt Stroud

    One of two Texas executions back on following legal scuffle over lethal drug formula

    One of two executions in Texas will continue as scheduled, following an earlier legal ruling that resulted in a temporary delay. Earlier today, a Houston judge halted the executions of two men after their lawyers argued that the drug used to carry out their executions might constitute cruel and unusual punishment. The source of the lethal drug, pentobarbital, had previously been withheld; the judge ruled that the lawyers were unable to challenge whether a new batch of pentobarbital was tainted without knowing where the lethal drug originated.

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  • Jacob Kastrenakes

    Mar 26, 2014

    Jacob Kastrenakes

    Oklahoma judge rules death row inmates can find out where execution drugs come from

    An Oklahoma judge has overturned a state law that prevented inmates on death row — and just about everyone else — from learning the source of drugs used during lethal injections, reports Oklahoma City's KFOR. According to the Associated Press, the law was declared unconstitutional because the strict privacy that it gave to drug makers violated petitioners' due process by not allowing information about them to be revealed even during a court's discovery process. The ruling came from an Oklahoma County district court in a lawsuit raised by two inmates scheduled for execution in April.

    Whether lethal injection drugs' sources should be disclosed has been in contention recently following reports of executions that led to pain or worked slowly. Several states have had to turn to new drug manufacturers in recent years, and there's been concern that these new drugs may be ineffective or cause suffering. The AP reports that Oklahoma intends to appeal the ruling, and the inmates have requested that a separate court put a stay on their executions for now. The inmates' lawyer expects that the ruling itself will be stayed too — potentially until it heads up to the state's high court.

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  • Rich McCormick

    Feb 6, 2014

    Rich McCormick

    Death row prisoners may be forced into electric chair if Virginia bill passes

    As supplies of the drugs used to administer lethal injections in the United States dry up, state governments are turning to other methods to execute their death row inmates. Ohio officials used an untested cocktail of lethal drugs on an inmate in January, to macabre results. Now Virginia has proposed a bill that would mean inmates will be sent to the electric chair if sufficient amounts of lethal injection drugs can't be found. While Virginia hasn't questioned the legality of the electric chair since 1921, courts in other states, such as Georgia and Nebraska, have classed it as cruel and unusual punishment.

    The proposed bill would make Virginia the only state in the US in which a death row prisoner could be forced into death by electrocution. It has already passed the state's House of Delegates, and according to The Washington Post, is likely to go up for state lawmakers to vote on this week. Currently, Virginian inmates sentenced to execution are able to choose between lethal injection and electrocution. If no choice is made, the lethal cocktail will be administered. If the new law passes, officials will be able to force inmates to be executed by electric chair if lethal injection drugs aren't available, or the prisoner declines to choose.

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  • Rich McCormick

    Jan 17, 2014

    Rich McCormick

    Untested lethal injection drug takes more than 20 minutes to kill Ohio death row inmate

    Dennis McGuire, a prisoner in Ohio sentenced to death for the rape and murder of Joy Stewart in 1989, took more than 20 minutes to die on Thursday after being given a lethal injection. According to the Associated Press, the combination of drugs used to kill McGuire had never before been used in the United States for execution purposes.

    McGuire reportedly made "loud snorting noises," before 10 minutes of "irregular breathing and gasping." Lethal injections in the United States are usually carried out using pentobarbital, a method that leads to much shorter executions, but Ohio's supplies of the drug have run out after its Danish manufacturers blocked its export for use in executions in 2011. In October, officials made the decision to use a different cocktail of drugs — consisting of a sedative and a painkiller — that had not been tested on humans in the US.

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  • Amar Toor

    Dec 19, 2013

    Amar Toor

    US executions decline amid European restrictions on death penalty drugs

    The number of executions declined in the US this year amid drug shortages and growing concerns over the cost and fairness of death penalty cases, according to a new report from the Death Penalty Information Center (DPIC), a Washington, DC-based nonprofit organization. The annual report, published Thursday, shows that there were 39 executions carried out in the US this year, down from the 43 that were carried out in both 2012 and 2011. This marks just the second time in 19 years that fewer than 40 people were executed on US soil.

    So far, 80 people have been sentenced to death this year — two more than last year, but well below the historical high of 315 death sentences handed down in 1994 and 1996. The number of death sentences issued this year is the lowest since 1976, when the US Supreme Court reinstated capital punishment.

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  • Katie Drummond

    Oct 29, 2013

    Katie Drummond

    Ohio will use an untested cocktail of drugs for upcoming execution

    Yet another US state is turning to unconventional drugs in order to carry out lethal injections. Ohio prison officials announced this week that they plan to execute Ronald Philips, convicted of raping and killing a three-year-old girl, with a combination of two drugs never before used in an execution.

    Officials made the decision after determining that they couldn't secure adequate supply of mainstay execution drug pentobarbital. The state ran out of pentobarbital last month, and getting more is a difficult task: the drug's Danish manufacturer in 2011 banned the export of pentobarbital for use in executions, and loosely regulated "compounding pharmacies" tend to shy away from producing drugs for use in lethal injections.

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  • Katie Drummond

    Oct 11, 2013

    Katie Drummond

    Missouri governor halts execution over concerns about new drug for lethal injections

    A Missouri man on death row will not see his execution proceed as planned, now that state governor Jay Nixon has intervened. In a statement issued today, Nixon halted the execution of convicted killer Allen Nicklasson over concerns about the proposed use of propofol for lethal injection.

    ""As governor, my interest is in making sure justice is served and public health is protected," Nixon said. "That is why, in light of the issues that have been raised surrounding the use of propofol in executions, I have directed the Department of Corrections that the execution of Allen Nicklasson, as set for October 23, will not proceed."

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  • Matt Stroud

    Oct 11, 2013

    Matt Stroud

    As drug companies back away from death row, who will fill the gap?

    In 1998, Michael Yowell was convicted of killing his parents while trying to steal their money to buy drugs. After the killings, he was arrested and charged with murder. Since he lived in Texas, it was a capital offense; he was eventually convicted and sentenced to death. At the beginning of this month, after 15 years of waiting on death row, Yowell finally made his orders for a last meal and prepared to die from a lethal injection at the state’s hands.

    Texas’s criminal justice system executes about one prisoner every month — more than any other jurisdiction in the United States by far. And much like the other 31 states that still carry out executions, lethal injection is Texas’ weapon of choice. It involves injecting enough of a dangerous drug into a convicted criminal’s veins to kill him. This is exactly what Yowell knew he’d face. And in total, his case wasn’t all that unusual.

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  • Aaron Souppouris

    Aug 3, 2013

    Aaron Souppouris

    Texas is running out of lethal injection drug

    Texas' entire stockpile of pentobarbital, the drug used for lethal injections, will expire within a matter of weeks. The state, which since 1982 has executed almost five times more inmates than any other, reportedly has enough stock to execute three more prisoners — provided the executions take place before the drug expires in September — and is having trouble finding a source for the drug. According to Richard Dieter, executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center, an anti-death penalty organization, drug manufacturers, many of them based in Europe, don't want to participate in executions, and have "clamped down" on exports to the US. The Texas Department of Criminal Justice tells the Associated Press that it currently has no backup plan for when the drug expires, but notes that it's "exploring all options." For more on Texas' plight, and the problems other states have faced in procuring lethal drugs, head to The Atlantic.

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