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US execution strategy threatened by drug shortfall

In a positive twist for the anti-death-penalty movement, a shortage of a drug used to execute inmates is making it a lot harder for pro-death penalty states to
Credit: Paul Buck/AFP/Getty Images/File
Credit: Paul Buck/AFP/Getty Images/File

In a positive twist for the anti-death-penalty movement, a shortage of a drug used to execute inmates is making it a lot harder for pro-death penalty states to carry out their prescribed sentences.

Lethal injection has historically involved a combination of three drugs: sodium thiopental, pancuronium bromide, and potassium chloride. After public pressure, Hospira, an Illinois-based drug maker, said in 2011 that it would no longer manufacture sodium thiopental, the anesthetic. It proposed sourcing the drug from Italy, but the Italian government declared it would deny export of the drug if it were to be used in executions.

This week, Maryland became the sixth state in six years to ban the death penalty thanks in part to Gov. Martin O'Malley arguing against capital punishment citing economic factors.  But--another 32 states still allow it.

Only four countries executed more people than the U.S. in 2012, according to Amnesty International: China, Iran, Iraq, and Saudi Arabia. The United States executed more people than Yemen or Sudan did.

The sentencing of Nathan Dunlap to death for the 1993 killing of four Chuck E. Cheese employees in Colorado is the latest case to test a state's ability to carry out lethal injection when no one will sell the state sodium thiopental for executions. Dunlap's execution may restart the debate over how states carry out such sentences—or whether the death penalty is an effective use of resources as the economy continues to struggle.

Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper, a Democrat, has expressed ambivalence about the death penalty, although in March he threatened to veto a bill that would have banned it, effectively ending the legislature's efforts. Gov. Hickenlooper's office told the Denver Post that he had not reached any decisions about his position, and his office had no comment on whether the Dunlap sentence might affect that process.

Anti-death penalty activists and human rights groups have long argued that lethal injection constitutes cruel and unusual punishment, pointing to numerous botched executions as proof that the procedure causes excruciating pain and suffering. It took a team in Ohio more than two hours and ten attempts complete a 2007 lethal injection. Botched executions in California have led District Attorneys there to sponsor a bill that would bring back the gas chamber as an execution method after nearly 20 years.

A December 2012 Gallup poll showed that public support for the death penalty is at a 40-year low, although 63% of Americans still support it.


Texas and other states began using pentobarbital, a drug used to euthanize animals, after Hospira stopped supplying the other drug. But this made the per execution cost of the drugs soar from $83 to almost $1300, according to an analysis by the Los Angeles Times. The manufacturer of that drug also said it would restrict its sale to prevent use in executions, calling it unsafe for such use.

Officials in Texas and other pro-death-penalty states have had to scramble to find enough drugs to carry out scheduled executions, but they have not been forthcoming as to how they plan to continue if their current supplies run out. Ohio has already executed two men using large doses of pentobarbital this year.