U.S. states are increasingly attempting to conceal information about drugs used to perform lethal injections, a report said Wednesday, a week after a botched Oklahoma execution which left a convicted killer writhing in agony.
Death penalty states “have intensified their efforts to obscure information regarding the development and implementation of their lethal injection protocols,” said the report by a committee of experts convened by the Constitution Project, a non-profit group that promotes bipartisan consensus on legal reform.
“This poses an unacceptable risk that inmates will face an unnecessarily cruel and painful death, violative of the US Constitution,” the 208-page study said, calling for comprehensive U.S. capital punishment reform.
Clayton Lockett, a convicted murderer and rapist, was administered a new, untested three-drug protocol on April 29 in Oklahoma. He died 43 minutes after the start of the injection — the process usually takes 10 minutes — prompting allegations of torture.
Lawyers had pleaded in vain in court demanding information about the new procedure, in particular the composition of the drugs and where they came from. But Oklahoma refused to provide such information.
“Such secrecy undermines the public’s faith in the integrity of the justice system,” the study said, calling for lethal injection protocols to be “handled in a transparent manner.”
A death row inmate in Texas whose execution is scheduled for May 13, meanwhile, has appealed for a stay of execution and has also demanded to be informed of such information.
“The issuance of the new report could not be more timely,” said former Democratic Texas governor Mark White, a co-chair of the committee that produced it, alongside judges, lawyers, and other experts.
After Lockett’s execution, President Barack Obama called the incident “deeply troubling” and warned that it raised “significant questions about how the death penalty is being applied.”
The state of Oklahoma called for a review of the procedure, with multiple entities demanding impartiality.
– ‘Irreversible errors’ –
“Adopt this report,” urged Anthony Graves, a former death row inmate in Texas who was later proven innocent and freed after more than 18 years in prison.
“I’m not here to free all the people in death row,” said the African-American man during a press conference to coincide with the report’s release.
However “we need to make the system fair,” he said.
As it stands, “we are murdering innocent people,” simply because “they cannot just afford justice,” he said.
The report, “Irreversible Errors” made 39 recommendations, including demanding that defendants in death penalty cases be ensured “effective counsel” from lawyers with specialized experience and expertise.
It also urged authorities reserve “capital punishment for the most heinous offenses and most culpable offenders.”
The report also calls for procedures to minimize the risk of people suffering and urged the adoption of a lethal dose of a single anesthetic, instead of the currently common three-drug cocktail.
Since European manufacturers began refusing to sell the most commonly used anesthetic — pentobarbital — for human executions, the 32 US states that impose capital punishment have been searching for new methods for lethal injection.
“There have been more changes in lethal injection protocols during the past five years than there have been in the last three decades,” said Deborah Denno, professor of law at Fordham University.
“States have turned to increasingly non-traditional sources of drugs, such as compounding pharmacies, resulting in overwhelming criticism and legal challenges,” she said.
Meanwhile, the companies are under the authority of states that are demanding the drugs, which are not approved at the federal level.
States “should use only drugs obtained in compliance with all laws and approved by the US Food and Drug administration” the report said.
Prison authorities should also assure the presence of qualified medical personnel during executions, the report said, because such procedures are “susceptible to error.”
The report was written before Lockett’s death and therefore does not mention his botched execution.
[Image via Agence France-Presse]