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Editorial

Demise of a death drug

States need sodium thiopental to perform lethal injections, but it's in short supply. Now what?

January 27, 2011

In response to violations of international human rights norms, Western governments are slapping sanctions on a rogue regime by halting exports of a deadly substance. That's nothing new; what is new is that the rogue nation is the United States.

The substance in question is sodium thiopental, a fast-acting anesthetic designed for surgery that has been put to a more sinister purpose in 34 states, which use it to numb condemned prison inmates before injecting another drug that stops their breathing and a third that stops their hearts. Sodium thiopental is very hard to come by because the only U.S. company that makes it has ceased production. Hospira Inc., unable to make the drug in the U.S., had hoped to manufacture it at a plant in Italy, but authorities there demanded assurances that it wouldn't be used for capital punishment. Unable to provide them, Hospira opted to get out of the business. Britain has banned exports of the drug to the U.S.

The United States is an extreme rarity among industrialized democracies for its embrace of the death penalty, which has been abolished in law or practice by 139 nations. That's why European countries are teaming up to stop exports of execution drugs to the U.S. — and that's throwing a wrench into the American machinery of death. Without a supply of sodium thiopental, many states will have to go through the lengthy process of revising their execution procedures. Executions have been delayed for five years in California amid lawsuits over whether the state's lethal injection method — which uses sodium thiopental — constitutes unconstitutionally cruel punishment. The state has an ample supply of the drug because it acquired 90 doses from Britain before London imposed its ban, but when that cache expires, the whole legal nightmare might start over.

If this were just a supply problem, it might be comparatively easy to solve. But lethal injection, considered the most "humane" way to execute criminals, comes with a host of other ethical, regulatory and legal challenges. Medical associations refuse to condone physician participation in executions, increasing the danger of botched procedures. The Food and Drug Administration wants nothing to do with lethal-injection drugs, refusing to verify the effectiveness of imports but allowing states to purchase them. Thus there is no way of knowing whether the drugs are producing the "painless" death they promise, or a torturous death forbidden by the Constitution.

Our biggest objection to the death penalty has nothing to do with death drugs. In an excellent but still imperfect legal system, it is impossible to determine guilt with 100% certainty, which is why dozens of death row inmates have been exonerated. Once a convict is dead, it's too late to set him or her free if new evidence materializes. Add to this the expense of the never-ending appeals process and the serious questions about execution methodology raised by the sodium thiopental fracas, and we have to ask: Is the visceral satisfaction Americans derive from killing convicted killers really worth its cost?

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