Just when you thought the legal morass that is lethal injection in the U.S. couldn’t get more complicated, it has. Hospira, Inc. of Lake Forest, Illinois, the sole U.S. manufacturer of sodium thiopental, announced last week that it is ending production of this key lethal injection drug. The company is moving the manufacture of the drug from its North Carolina plant to a more modern facility in Italy. But, because Italy, as well as the European Union, opposes the death penalty, Italian authorities demanded a guarantee from Hospira that the drug would not be used to put inmates to death—an assurance that the company said it could not give.
During the past several months, a shortage of sodium thiopental has forced some states to halt scheduled executions. Though Tennessee was moving forward with four scheduled executions last year, Davidson County Chancellor Claudia Bonnyman ruled in November that Tennessee’s use of a three-drug cocktail to execute inmates, a cocktail which includes sodium thiopental, “allows for death by suffocation while conscious.”
Following this ruling, the state then quickly revised its protocol requiring that the prison warden check to see if the prisoner is unconscious after the first drug is administered and before the inmate gets a lethal dose of the other drugs. The warden checks for consciousness by brushing his hand over the inmate’s eyes, shaking the prisoner gently, and calling out his name. Defense attorneys argue that this added step won’t remove the risk, particularly since the warden is not medically trained. A ruling on this issue is expected in February.
The problems with lethal injection are just the tip of the iceberg when examining the death penalty system and will not be settled anytime soon. How much more time and money will we throw at this system before we realize that it can’t be fixed? With states slashing their budgets right and left, wouldn’t we all be better served trying to prevent these crimes from happening in the first place while supporting these surviving families of victims who have suffered rather than by continuing to spend millions on the death penalty?
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