MONTGOMERY, Ala. (AP) - Alabama can’t execute death row inmates because the state has run out of the critical first drug given at the start of each lethal injection, authorities said Tuesday.
Clay Crenshaw, of the Alabama attorney general’s office, said the state currently does not have access to pentobarbital, the first drug in its three-drug execution process. There are 16 death row inmates who have exhausted appeals and are awaiting execution, but the state Department of Corrections has no pentobarbital needed to carry out the death sentence, he said.
“Pentobarbital is still manufactured and sold and it maybe one day that DOC can get access to it, but right now we don’t have access,” Crenshaw said.
Pentobarbital is the first drug administered during a lethal injection in Alabama. Authorities said it is intendeded to render an inmate unconscious before the next two drugs stop his respiratory functions and heart.
A spokesman for the Alabama Department of Corrections confirmed that the state has no stockpiles of pentobarbital, but declined further comment.
Death penalty states around the country are dealing with a scarcity of lethal injection drugs after a European-based drug-maker announced it would no longer sell pentobarbital. Some states are looking to substitutes or, as Alabama is doing, seeking secrecy laws that would guarantee confidentiality to suppliers such as compounding pharmacies that make the drug on site.
In 2002, Alabama switched from the electric chair to lethal injection as the state’s primary form of capital punishment. For years the state used a three-drug protocol of sodium thiopental, pancuronium bromide and potassium chloride.
Then, in 2011, the sole manufacturer of sodium thiopental stopped providing the drug. The Alabama Department of Corrections announced in April 2011 that because of a national shortage of sodium thiopental, it would begin using pentobarbital as the first of the three-drug protocol.
Danish-based Lundbeck, which manufactures pentobarbital, announced in 2011 that it would no longer ship the drug to prisons in U.S. states that use lethal injection.
Normally, the state attorney general’s office asks the Alabama Supreme Court to set an execution date for an inmate when all appeals have been exhausted. Crenshaw said difficulty in obtaining the lethal injection drug has slowed the pace of executions in Alabama. From six executions in 2011, the state went to none in 2012 and one in 2013.
The Alabama Department of Corrections won’t say where it has purchased drugs for recent executions.
State Rep. Lynn Greer, R-Rogersville, has cited the state’s trouble obtaining the drugs while urging lawmakers to approve a bill that would make suppliers’ names a state secret.
The Alabama Department of Corrections is seeking legislation this session that would make the names off-limits to both the public and the courts. The House passed the bill on a 77-19 vote earlier this month. A Senate committee put an amendment on the bill that would specify that a judge could order the information released.
The Death Penalty Information Center has estimated that seven states have adopted similar laws which are being challenged in court.
Deborah W. Denno, a law professor at the Fordham University School of Law, said she believes secrecy laws are “dangerous” and there are no grounds for them. She added that it’s impossible to know the quality of the drug without knowing its source.
“We have it now because the more information that’s revealed by departments of corrections and where they are getting these drugs and who’s injecting the drugs, the more problematic we realize the execution process is. The secrecy has been a defensive measure,” Denno said.
Crenshaw argued that a sample from the compounding pharmacy could be tested at an independent lab for purity and effectiveness. He added that death penalty opponents want to uncover the source of execution drugs in order to pressure suppliers.
“They want to know the source because they want to shut that source down,” Crenshaw said
Oklahoma adopted new drug protocols after an appeals court postponed a pair of executions over doubts that the state would have the needed drugs. Texas announced last week that it had obtained a new batch of the executions drugs, enabling the state to keep carrying out executions, but state officials would not say where they purchased them.
Alabama death row inmate Thomas Arthur filed a federal lawsuit in 2011 challenging lethal injection with pentobarbital as potentially cruel and unusual punishment.
Arthur’s lawyers argued that the pentobarbital takes longer to take affect and that inmates would feel the effects of the final two drugs. They said an insufficiently anaesthetized inmate would be chemically entombed, unable to move but feeling an intense burning pain while the potassium chloride worked its way to his heart.
Crenshaw disputed that assertion. He said the state’s dose of pentobarbital is greater than the amount needed to induce a coma and is enough to likely cause death on its own.
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