Another war on drugs needed to stop executions

Aug. 03, 2013

It is welcome news that the Texas prison system’s supply of the drug used for execution is about to expire and the state may have trouble replenishing its stash of pentobarbital.

Even if this problem for the state isn’t long-lasting, it gives me a ray of hope that one day lethal injection may go the way of “Old Sparky,” the electric chair used in Texas for 40 years.

When the state took charge of executions (previously relegated to the counties) in 1923, it decided that electrocution, rather than hanging, would be the method used to kill inmates sentenced to death.

Between 1924 and 1964, Texas electrocuted 361 people in that chair before the Supreme Court halted capital punishment for a while.

After reinstatement of the death penalty by the high court, Texas decided to adopt lethal injection for execution, retiring Old Sparky — now housed at the Texas Prison Museum in Huntsville — and replacing it with a gurney.

Charlie Brooks of Fort Worth became the first person executed in the country by injection. He was given a three-drug cocktail of sodium thiopental, pancuronium bromide and potassium chloride, a combination the state used until two years ago.

Since Brooks died, Texas has put to death 502 other prisoners (11 this year), far more than any other state in the country. Virginia has the second-highest number of executions with 110.

Although the state doesn’t divulge who supplies its drugs for execution, The Guardian newspaper reported in 2010 that British companies were secretly supplying some American prisons with drugs used for lethal injections.

Pressure was put on those companies and on government officials to stop exporting the drugs for capital punishment purposes.

In 2011, the maker of sodium thiopental stopped producing the drug under pressure from anti-death penalty supporters, and in 2012 the state could not get access to pancuronium bromide, according to a report by the Houston Chronicle.

Since that time Texas’ lethal injections have been of a single drug, pentobarbital, which is commonly used for euthanizing animals.

The state’s supply of the drug expires in September, when it has two more executions scheduled. Prison officials have not said if those executions, or three others set for this year, will be delayed.

The question is, what will the state do if the pentobarbital becomes permanently unavailable?

Michael Graczyk of The Associated Press reported that some states are “turning to compounding pharmacies, which make customized drugs that are not scrutinized by the Federal Drug Administration, to obtain a lethal drug for execution use.”

At least one state is considering returning to the gas chamber, but I can’t imagine Texas considering another method besides lethal injection.

We can’t go back to the electric chair or hanging, and the public certainly wouldn’t stand for instituting firing squads or gas as a means killing people.

So it seems we are stuck with the needle and some drug.

The fact that pressure on drug manufacturers has had some impact on holding up executions means death penalty opponents now have another weapon in their fight against capital punishment.

While they’ll still fight legislatively and through the courts, it would be a rewarding victory if they can continue to convince drug companies not to supply these death chambers with doses of lethal pharmaceuticals.

It would be a different kind of “war on drugs,” but it would be one worth waging.

Tubing and straps used in the execution of Brooks in 1982 are now in the museum with Old Sparky.

Perhaps it won’t be too long before we can retire the gurney for exhibit purposes only and close Texas’ death chamber for good.

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