Monday, November 1, 2010

SCOTUS Opens the Door to Substitute Execution Drugs

Last week Arizona executed Jeffrey Landrigan amid lingering questions about where the state obtained the sodium thiopental for the execution. The U.S. Supreme Court, by a 5-4 decision, found "There is no evidence in the record to suggest that the drug obtained from a foreign source is unsafe." The majority consisted of Chief Justice John Roberts and Justices Antonin Scalia, Anthony Kennedy, Clarence Thomas and Samuel Alito.

In the Supreme Court's divided order allowing the execution of Landrigan, the justices spurned arguments about the safety of a lethal injection mix and appear to have allowed the first U.S. execution using a drug from a foreign country, according to the USA Today.

Prison officials face a nationwide shortage of sodium thiopental, one of the three drugs used in lethal injections. The sodium thiopental shortage has threatened to block executions in Oklahoma and Kentucky. New supplies are not likely to be available until 2011. Most states use a three-drug cocktail of which sodium thiopental is one of the drugs. Ohio and Washington use only a single lethal dose of sodium thiopental for lethal injection in their respective states.

According to the USA Today, lawyers who follow capital punishment said it appeared to be the first time any state relied on an overseas drug maker. Arizona Chief Deputy Attorney General Tim Nelson said last week that it was the first time Arizona had to use a foreign drug. He also said it came from "a reputable source" and that officials believe it's safe. The drug apparently came from a British company.

Fordham University law professor Deborah Denno, an expert on capital punishment told the USA Today, “This is the first time that we've been aware of that this drug has been imported." The High Court’s decision and the action of Arizona officials seems to open the door to other states to seek sodium thiopental from international sources.

Ohio has admitted to a shortage of sodium thiopental. The state has its record 9th execution scheduled this month. Ohio was also the first state to move away from the three drug cocktail to a single drug method of execution. Ohio will be the next state to seek sodium thiopental from alternative sources or substitute another drug for purposes of carrying out executions.

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