State’s entire supply of pentobarbital runs out on March 1 with Georgia seeking permission from courts to block legal delays
The state of Georgia is scrambling for legal permission to proceed with two scheduled executions before its supply of the drug that would be used to kill the prisoners reaches its expiration date on 1 March.
Georgia has death warrants currently served on Warren Hill and Andrew Cook, convicted murderers who have been on death row since 1991 and 1995 respectively. Hill’s death warrant runs until 26 February and Cook’s until 28 February – the final day before the state’s stock of pentobarbital runs out.
The attorney general of Georgia – the state’s chief prosecutor – is hurriedly trying to overturn stays of execution that have been imposed this week on the Hill and Cook executions. The courts intervened after it was found that pentobarbital was being ordered by the corrections department for use as a lethal injection without a prescription from a doctor – a breach of federal rules over the distribution of a controlled substance.
The attempt to execute Warren Hill, pictured, has provoked international condemnation because the prisoner has been diagnosed as intellectually disabled. A federal appeals court has also blocked the execution to allow time to consider the disability issue, and on Thursday the US supreme court denied Georgia’s request to overturn the stay.
Georgia confirmed to the Guardian that its entire supply of pentobarbital expires on 1 March. The expiration date leaves the state in a quandary: it still has 94 men and one woman on death row, including Hill and Cook, but with no obvious means by which to execute them.
A spokeswoman for the department of corrections insisted that it anticipated “it will be able to obtain sufficient supplies of the drugs necessary to carry out the court ordered lethal injection process.” But just how that could be done is not obvious.
Anti-death penalty campaigners are scathing about the unseemly haste with which Georgia appears to rushing to beat the deadline. “This highlights the nastiness of the process that the AG should be racing to kill prisoners ahead of an expiration date,” said Sara Totonchi, director of the Southern Center for Human Rights.
Georgia’s difficulties procuring execution drugs is a reflection of the gradual stranglehold that is being put on the US death penalty by authorities and companies around the world refusing to act as accomplices in the death sentence. The European Commission, following unilateral action by the UK, has imposed restrictions on the export of medicines to all US corrections departments.
As a result of the European squeeze, Hospira, the only US manufacturer of sodium thiopental, an anaesthetic that was used widely in the triple cocktail of lethal injections, ceased production in 2011. That, in turn, forced states including Georgia to revise their death protocols, shifting to a single injection of pentobarbital.
But now supplies of pentobarbital are also running out. One of the leading manufacturers of the drug, the Danish firm Lundbeck, has introduced tough restrictions on the distribution of the drug to prevent it falling into the hands of US executioners.
As legal routes for the procurement of medical drugs have been successively shut down, several of the 33 states that still practice the death penalty have resorted to shady methods for acquiring them. Georgia was exposed in 2011 as having been one of the states that bought lethal injection drugs from Dream Pharma, an unlicensed company that operated out of a driving school in west London.
Other corrections departments have looked to India for their supplies.
Maya Foa, an expert on execution drugs at the human rights group Reprieve, said that at the heart of the issue was a fundamental principle “that medicines should be used to save lives, not end them. The underhand, sordid practices we have seen in states trying to get hold of these drugs exposes their absolute disregard for human dignity.”
As Georgia struggles to find new sources of pentobarbital or alternatives, death penalty abolitionists will be watching closely for any signs that they are turning to compounding pharmacies to make up the drugs for them. In October, South Dakota executed Eric Robert using a batch of pentobarbital that it had obtained from a local pharmacy.
Tests that were done on the batch showed that it was contaminated with fungus, in an echo of last year’s outbreak of fungal meningitis that was tracked down to a compounding center in Massachusetts.