The campaign by death-penalty opponents to make executions de facto impossible by cutting off the supply of fatal drugs may be losing momentum as two states announced Thursday that they have been able to replenish their supplies.
Nebraska Gov. Pete Ricketts sent an email to reporters Thursday night saying the state had been able to purchase all three drugs used in its execution protocol — potassium chloride, sodium thiopental and pancuronium bromide. He said the first drug was in the hands of the Department of Correctional Services, and the other two are expected to be delivered soon from an Indian distributor.
“The functionality of the death penalty in Nebraska has been a management issue that I have promised to resolve,” Mr. Ricketts said. “The department has purchased the drugs that are necessary to carry out the death penalty in Nebraska in the near future.”
Meanwhile on Thursday, Texas made a similar announcement though, unlike Nebraska, officials in the Lone Star State refused to say where they had got them, in an effort to shield the manufacturer from the latest tactic of death-penalty abolitionists.
Jason Clark, a spokesman for the Texas Department of Criminal Justice, said Thursday only that the state has purchased enough new pentobarbital from a licensed compounder to carry out at least the two executions scheduled for June.
“The drugs were purchased from a licensed pharmacy that has the ability to compound,” he said. “We continue to explore all options including the continued use of pentobarbital or alternate drugs to use in the lethal injection process.”
U.S. liberals and foreign governments have put varying pressures on doctors and on the major drug companies — including boycotts and legal sanctions — unless they refuse to aid prison systems in U.S. death-penalty states.
For example, the American Pharmacists Association voted in March to discourage its members from participating in executions, including by selling drugs, saying they should be acting as “health care providers.” The American Medical Association, the American Nurses Association and the American Board of Anesthesiology have policies against direct involvement.
In 2011, the European Union banned exports of a series of drugs, over their use for lethal injections in U.S. states and in an explicit attempt to achieve “universal abolition.” The EU not only has no death penalty itself, but its membership protocols specify that any new members must not have capital punishment and agree to its permanent abolition.
“In recent years, some smaller drugmakers elsewhere in the world have also declined to sell sodium thiopental and other lethal-injection drugs to U.S. states, citing activist pressure, the fear of lawsuits, and their ethical obligations,” a 2014 article in The Atlantic reported.
The tactic has been largely successful in making lethal-injection sentences more difficult to carry out in recent years.
Several states either have seen their drug supply pass its use-by date. As a result, Ohio and Florida have changed their drug protocols to use different chemicals, with uneven results in terms of ensuring a painless execution — a reason that a previous generation of liberal activists had cited in pushing lethal injection as an alternative to the electric chair, hangings and other methods.
Other states have developed unconventional means to acquire the drugs such as compounding pharmacies rather than direct from manufacturers.
In addition, legislators in Oklahoma and Utah have both made it easier to execute murderers using other methods — nitrogen asphyxiation in the former state, the firing squad in the latter. Similar measures are under consideration in other states.
Officials in Nebraska said they had acquired the drugs from HarrisPharma.
But Texas officials have refused to identify its sources and, like other states, is in the midst of legal fights over the issue.
Some inmates on Texas death row have filed lawsuits demanding to know the source of the drugs and a Texas judge agreed, though his ruling is being appealed and is on hold for now.
Meanwhile, the Texas Legislature is considering making the issue moot by passing a law specifying that the state’s lethal-drug supplier is to remain confidential. The Senate has passed such a bill and the House is considering one. Oklahoma also has passed an anonymity law.
Both in court cases and to its legislators, the office of Attorney General Ken Paxton has said the state cannot acquire lethal drugs if it doesn’t promise total confidentiality, saying the suppliers have reported threats from death-penalty opponents.
Nebraska has 11 murderers on death row, three of whom have exhausted their appeals, but the state hasn’t carried out an execution in almost two decades and its supply of reliable sodium thiopental expired in December 2013.
In the past year, an increasing number of legislators in the conservative state have called for the state to abolish the death penalty in response and debate on a bill to do that was scheduled to start Friday.