Al Jazeera America NewsDaily

Death penalty standards in the US need reform, experts say

Experts agree that recent botched executions highlight a need for federal oversight

Three convicted murderers are scheduled to die by lethal injection later this week. One, John Winfield, was granted a stay of execution in Missouri due to a clemency bid, but executions of the other men — in Georgia and Florida — are still scheduled to go forward.

That the executions in Georgia and Florida are expected to move ahead has prompted concern following Oklahoma's botched execution in April of convicted murderer Clayton Lockett. His protracted execution — due to an improperly inserted intravenous line — reignited a national debate over how the death penalty is carried out in the United States. Lockett's autopsy revealed that when officials improperly inserted an IV, a mix of midazolam, vercuronium bromide and potassium chloride, was forced to either penetrate his tissue or leak out of his body.

Lockett writhed on his gurney, lifting his head several times and struggling to speak until the state’s prison director halted the execution. He died of a heart attack shortly afterward.

Even before Lockett's execution, many states had been finding it difficult to procure the drugs used in lethal injections from European suppliers, who have refused to sell their products if they were to be used in executions.

One such state, Georgia has had to rely on an undisclosed, potentially unaccredited, compounding pharmacy to obtain pentobarbital for the execution of Marcos Wellons, scheduled for Tuesday. Wellons may be the first inmate to be put to death in the United States since Lockett’s execution in April. And his execution will be the first time Georgia uses drugs manufactured by a compounded pharmacy. 

Al Jazeera’s Thomas Drayton spoke about the death penalty controversies in the U.S. with Richard Dieter, the executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center, and Christopher Durocher, government affairs counsel for the Constitution Project, for the network’s Sunday night segment “The Week Ahead.”

Dieter said that as more manufacturers — especially those in Europe — are withholding drugs, states have been scrambling to find new access, new combinations and with a clear human cost even as states conduct reviews of their own procedures. Dieter added that national standards for best practices and types of drugs used should be issued.

“This state-by-state [review] is a bit of an experiment; different states are trying different things, and all of this is with human subjects — we usually don’t allow that type of experimentation.”

Durocher added that more transparency is needed surrounding state executions.

“In both of those cases, the states were using new drug under new protocols that had been adopted under a great deal of secrecy and really that’s the trend,” Durocher said. “At this point we should be really careful about moving forward with additional executions when we are still not sure what happened in Oklahoma.”

Florida is set to execute John Ruthell Henry, who was found guilty of murdering three people, on Wednesday. 

An execution was also scheduled in Missouri for next week, but its postponement had little to do with the state’s concern for reforming its procedures. A federal judge stayed next week’s execution of John Winfield after evidence surfaced that state officials may have intimidated a prison employee that had planned to support the convicted murderer’s clemency.

Close to 3,100 inmates await execution nationwide and the U.S. is one of the last Western countries to practice capital punishment. Even the American Medical Association, the American Board of Anesthesiology and the American Nurses’ Association are among groups that prohibit members from assisting in executions.

“I don’t know that the U.S. wants to be the last country standing with the death penalty,” Dieter said.

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