“Lethal injection is supposed to be a humane method of execution, so the risk is that by a lack of adequate quality control, the execution may not be humane,” Dresser said. “The ethical concern would be that they’re allowing unjustified pain or distress.”
The issue of quality control came into stark relief in 2012 when an outbreak of meningitis that killed 64 and sickened hundreds was traced to a compounding facility in Massachusetts. Critics of drug secrecy have cited the outbreak as an example of what can happen without tighter monitoring.
Traditionally, executioners in the U.S. were hidden from the public, performing hangings or electrocutions while wearing masks or behind walls, since many were despised. Likewise, several states now have secrecy laws or policies shielding the source of execution drugs, including Arkansas, Colorado, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, Missouri, Oklahoma, South Dakota and Texas. Many protocols were adopted in the past year specifically to mask the drugmaker’s identity.
The trend toward secrecy was spurred by states being forced to obtain non-federally regulated versions of drugs from compounding pharmacies, said Jen Moreno, an attorney with the Law Death Penalty Clinic at the University of California-Berkeley.
Compounding pharmacies make drugs for individual clients. They are subject to less scrutiny because they produce a fraction of a national manufacturer’s output and, they argue, added regulations could harm their ability to provide doses not always available in big batches.
At least one case highlights how states have a stake in keeping the supplier’s name secret.
When death penalty opponents and media reported that a Tulsa, Okla., pharmacy called the Apothecary Shoppe provided compounded pentobarbital for Missouri executions, it became the subject of a protest, a lawsuit by an inmate and news stories.
The suit was settled when the pharmacy agreed to not provide the drug, and Missouri had to scramble to find a new supplier.
Texas has cited threats of violence against suppliers. An attorney for the prison system argued in a brief this week that someone “threatened to blow up a truck full of fertilizer” outside a pharmacy that provides execution drugs for another state. The AP could find no evidence that any related investigation is underway in Texas.
Officials in Oklahoma and Missouri also argue anonymity is important to protect the safety of those involved in executions.
Delaware, Nevada, Ohio and Virginia are exceptions to the secrecy rule. Three of the four have purchased their execution drugs from Cardinal Health, headquartered in Dublin, Ohio. A spokesman for Cardinal Health declined to comment on the secrecy issue.
Ohio bought its two execution drugs, made by Hospira, from the distributor McKesson Corp. Hospira no longer sells drugs for use in executions, but the state has enough on hand for upcoming executions. McKesson has refused to comment.
Jim Hall acknowledged that in the past, he sometimes thought convicted killers should be shown no mercy - perhaps killed by the same method they used for their victims. Watching the death of the man who killed his daughter changed him. Still, he’d like to see issues surrounding the drugs resolved.
“I think every state in the union should use one supplier,” Hall said. “That supplier can be vetted at least one time, the drug can be tested. That would stop a lot of this stuff.”