A lawsuit filed in federal court on behalf of death row inmates in Tennessee, Arizona, and California could force the Food and Drug Administration to bar the foreign importation of sodium thiopental, a drug used in most states’ executions. The lawsuit, filed on Wednesday, calls on the FDA to abide by its constitutional requirement to “screen all commercial shipments of drugs, as well as all shipments of controlled substances.” If successful, the lawsuit would also require the FDA to recall all shipments of sodium thiopental that have already been shipped to the U.S. for use in executions. In response to the recent criticism over its handling of the sodium thiopental shipments from Britain, the FDA has asserted that the drugs used for executions do not fall under their jurisdiction.
Along with questions concerning the quality of imported sodium thiopental, the State of Tennessee is also grappling with the procedure by which the drug is applied. All Tennessee executions are currently on hold while Davidson County Chancellor Claudia Bonnyman decides whether the state’s current use of a three-drug protocol violates the eighth amendment’s ban on cruel and unusual punishment. Bonnyman’s decision to hear testimony concerning the procedure came after questions were raised about whether the amount of sodium thiopental used is enough to render a person unconscious. These allegations arose out of autopsies performed on executed inmates, Robert Coe, Phillip Workman, and Steve Henley. The medical expert called to testify before Chancellor Bonnyman, anesthesiologist Dr. David Lubarsky, found that “Coe had the most of the barbiturate in his system. But even that was five times less than what’s required to anesthetize a patient for a procedure known as a laryngoscopy, a routine examination of the back of the throat.”
In today’s Tennessean, an op ed by TADP Director Stacy Rector asserts that though the range of issues concerning lethal injection must be dealt with as someone life is at stake, the fact is that the problems go much deeper than simply the method of execution. The problems plaguing the current death penalty system means that the system continues to be unfairly applied, extremely costly, difficult on victims’ families while at the same time risking the lives of innocent people. We can and must do better than this.
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