Missouri Department of Corrections / Florida Department of Law Enforcement / Georgia Department of Law Enforcement / AP

US executions continue despite concerns over secretive drugs

Georgia and Missouri executions are the first since botched Oklahoma procedure

A Georgia inmate convicted of rape and murder has become the first person to be executed in the U.S. since a botched execution left an Oklahoma man writhing on a gurney for more than half-an-hour in April.

Marcus Wellons, 59, was executed by injection Tuesday night after last-minute appeals were denied. A corrections spokesman says he was pronounced dead at 11:56 p.m., more than an hour after the procedure began. 

The execution seemed to go smoothly, with no noticeable complications. Georgia uses one drug — the sedative pentobarbital — for executions. Oklahoma uses three

Soon after Wellons' execution, a Missouri corrections spokesman said John Winfield died early Wednesday at the state prison in Bonne Terre.

Another convicted killer, John Ruthell Henry, is scheduled to die later Wednesday in Florida.

Like Oklahoma and others beforehand, Georgia and Missouri have refused to disclose the suppliers of the lethal injection drugs set to be used in a move that has been repeatedly challenged by lawyers and rights groups.

A Georgia state parole board denied Wellons clemency. And on Monday night a federal judge ruled that Georgia would not be forced to divulge the name of the company that sold them the drugs, a potential barrier to Tuesday’s execution.

Advocates against the death penalty said Oklahoma inmate Clayton Lockett’s painfully botched execution on April 29 showed that the means of execution currently employed falls short of what is acceptable.

“Following the execution of Clayton Lockett, we know very well that the risk of extreme torture in lethal injection is incredibly real, and states like Georgia can no longer ask the public to trust that lethal injections are humane,” said Kathryn Hamoudah, chair of the board of Georgians for Alternatives to the Death Penalty.

“Mr. Wellons is going to be executed in a completely not transparent way. The problem with secrecy is there are no checks and balances.”

She added that unfairness in the justice system — with the death penalty disproportionately handed out to poor and minority convicts — also stands as more reason not to carry out Wellons’ execution.

“There is no a humane way to carry out executions.”

Wellons was executed for the murder of India Roberts, a 15-year-old-girl, in Cobb County, Georgia in 1989.

His lawyers had argued that carrying out the ultimate punishment would violate Wellons’ Eighth Amendment protection against cruel and unusual punishment because of the danger of using a lethal drug from an unknown supplier.

 “Terrible things can happen,” Wellons attorney Bo King said, arguing against the unknown drug, according to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported. “When they go wrong, they go terribly, horribly wrong for the prisoner.”

In the Lockett case, a burst vein caused the convicted rapist and killer to undergo an agonizing death as drugs intended to sedate him failed and he eventually suffered a fatal heart attack.

Lockett’s execution used midazolam, a powerful sedative, which is also set to kill Florida death row inmate John Henry on Wednesday. Henry stabbed his ex-wife and her five-year-old son to death in 1985.

Attorneys for Missouri death row inmate Jon Winfield, convicted of killing two people and blinding his wife during a 1996 shooting rampage, had also argued the state should disclose its drug sources. 

Richard Dieter, executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center, a group that analyzes information concerning capital punishment, said the secrecy of death penalty drugs puts prisoners at risk.

“They’re saying what drugs they’re using, but they’re not saying who has prepared them. Is it a reputable organization or company? Is the pharmacy that makes the drug acceptable? Does it have experience with this drug? Have there been health violations by this pharmacy? No one knows,” Dieter said.

He also said more investigation is required into the circumstances of Lockett’s grisly death in Oklahoma’s death chamber.

“We don’t know what wrong, and we don’t know what needs to be changed, so it’s dangerous to go forward with the execution,” he said, adding that Georgia is asking citizens to simply have faith that the state is using a reliable drug dealer.

“There’s no verification of anything that Georgia has said. It’s all government by trust.”

The Supreme Court, for its part, has so far decided not to hear a full case about the kinds of drugs states use to execute death row inmates. Although relatively standardized just a few years ago, death penalty states have been running out of drug suppliers. Pharmacies in Europe, where capital punishment is widely banned, and some back home in the U.S. have refused to resupply them.

As a result, states turned to new companies — often only semi-regulated compound pharmacies — but have refused to reveal their names for fear of violating their privacy.

If it did rule on the issue, Dieter said, the Supreme Court would likely split along standard ideological lines, with the more liberal justices arguing for prisoners’ rights to know the drug sources and those on the right siding with the states. In past opinions denying review of the cases, the justices have revealed their biases on the issue, he said.

As for the death penalty itself, Dieter said there’s no way the condemned remains completely comfortable, but “you can try to avoid as much physical pain and uncertainty as possible.”

 “There are more humane ways and less humane ways,” Dieter said, adding, “I don’t know if there’s a way that would pass the test of complete acceptability. All of these things are taking of a human life.”

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