‘Kill-by’ date looms

US death row cases reveal unacceptably cruel use of inappropriate drugs

 

Justice Sonia Sotomayor of the US Supreme Court has described execution using the sedative midazolam as “the chemical equivalent of being burned at the stake”. Painless it is not. The drug is associated with multiple botched executions but, courtesy of Sotomayor’s colleagues on the Supreme Court, it is still legal. It is the drug of choice in the three-drug execution cocktail (midazolam, vecuronium bromide to stop breathing, and potassium chloride to stop the heart) of the state of Arkansas.

Over the course of 10 days in April, Arkansas, which has executed no-one since 2005, will exercise its prerogative to kill eight of its death row inmates, nearly a quarter of its death-row population, and more than a third as many people as were put to death in the US in 2016. It will do so in such a hurry because the “use-by” date on its supply of midazolam is looming large and it fears it will not be able to buy new supplies from drug companies who are now unwilling to supply it for execution.

A number of well-documented cases illustrate the cruelty of this drug’s use as a method of execution – inmates have remained awake and writhed in pain, choking, for periods ranging from minutes to hours.

Faced with increased controversy over repeated drug-based botched executions and now finding it harder to obtain drugs, some states are opting for other means. There are bills pending to reinstitute the firing squad in Utah, the electric chair in Tennessee, and the gas chamber in Mississippi and Oklahoma. Arizona has suggested prisoners or their lawyers bring their own pentobarbital or sodium pentothal to their execution to ensure a smooth execution.

In 2015, a YouGov poll found that the majority of Americans believe lethal injection to be the only form of execution that is not cruel and unusual. But that sanitisation of death is being increasingly exposed as a fraud. Nationwide, support for the death penalty has steadily declined along with the number of executions. Its time is surely coming.

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