Sodium thiopental is one of three drugs used in California's lethal injection procedure.
The Federal District Court in Washington D.C. today ruled that execution drugs obtained by U.S. prisons from foreign suppliers are illegal and will have to be returned to the Food and Drug Administration.
A number of states purchased sodium thiopental–an anesthetic used in lethal injections–from a company in the United Kingdom amidst a U.S. shortage of the drug in 2010. California is among those states, having bought 514.5 grams, in theory, enough for 171 executions.
California's Death Row at San Quentin State Prison
According to the Associated Press, 69-year-old Dennis Lawley was found dead of natural causes in his prison cell on San Quentin’s Death Row on Sunday afternoon. Assuming departmental statistics are up to date, Lawley’s death is the 56th time a condemned inmate has died of natural causes since the death penalty was reinstated in California in 1978. Meanwhile, 19 have committed suicide, 6 have died of unspecified causes, and a total of 14 have been executed.
For the second time in as many years, a drug commonly used in executions will become unavailable.
Word’s come out that pentobarbital, a barbituate several states use in lethal injections, will be much harder to find shortly, as the sole FDA-approved manufacturer of the drug is refusing to sell it to states that use it for executions. Pentobarbital, incidentally, became widely adopted just last year as a replacement for sodium thiopental, which was recently discontinued by its US maker.
According to the San Jose Mercury News:
In court papers filed Wednesday, the Brown administration and lawyers for death row inmates agreed that the soonest they will finish preliminary legal skirmishing in the long-running challenge to the state’s lethal injection procedures will be September 2012 — a development that assures a federal judge is unlikely to resolve the case before the end of next year.
As a result, California’s de facto moratorium on executions, already nearing six full years, will stretch on in a state with more than 720 inmates on death row.
If that schedule holds true, California voters may have the option of eliminating the death penalty before this case is decided. A ballot initiative that could end capital punishment is tentatively slated for the November 2012 ballot.
Questions persist about California's lethal injection process.
In California, many decisions about the criminal justice system have been left to–or have been commandeered by–the voters through the initiative process. The death penalty is one such major issue. Capital punishment had already been reinstated by the legislature the year before, but in 1978, California voters affirmed their commitment to capital punishment by passing Proposition 7.
Since 1978, California juries have sentenced about 800 convicts to death — of which only 13 have actually been executed. The rest either continue to wait on Death Row, or have already died of other causes. Meanwhile, California taxpayers have spent over $4 billion on administering a death penalty that, critics say, exists only on paper. What explains the delays — and the high cost? In a new report, the ACLU of Northern California provides a partial answer:
[Death Row] inmates are housed in single cells unlike other prisoners, and there are significant security costs. Death penalty trials cost up to 20 times more than trials for life imprisonment without the possibility of parole. In fact, death sentences are handed down after two trials, instead of one [a guilt phase and a penalty phase]. Taxpayers are legally required to pay for numerous appeals in death penalty cases, unlike cases involving life without possibility of parole, where the prisoner gets only one taxpayer funded appeal. In California, the average time between conviction and execution is now more than 25 years. This figure is likely to get even longer with budget pressures and challenges to the state’s lethal injection procedure.
I say this is only a partial answer because other states face similar structural and constitutional constraints, yet manage to carry out executions at a regular pace. For instance, this year alone, Texas has already executed seven prisoners with several more scheduled this summer. How does the Texas legal system move so much more quickly than ours? That would take a lot longer than a blog post to answer fully, but one reason is that Texas has historically been more tolerant of sloppy lawyering in capital cases. Then too, Texas doesn’t have to answer to the Ninth Circuit, the federal appeals court with jurisdiction over the West. Continue reading
Georgia Department of Corrections
Roy Willard Blankenship
When the execution drug sodium thiopental became scarce last year, and then the US company that manufactured the drug ceased production, states turned to a new drug, pentobarbital, to take its place. Pentobarbital, like sodium thiopental, is an anesthetic. In the lethal injection process, the drug is used to put an inmate comfortably to sleep before a second drug paralyzes him or her and a third injection stops the heart. Until recently, pentobarbital–which itself is lethal in high doses–was primarily used to euthanize pets. So its use in human executions has gotten a fair amount of press. Now, ABC reports, it’s under even more scrutiny following the “thrashing, jerking death” of Roy Willard Blankenship, executed in Georgia last week:
A much circulated study released yesterday found that California spends about $184 million a year on its policy of capital punishment. That means, from a cost-result perspective, that for each of the 13 executions completed since the death penalty was reinstated in 1978, California has spent $308 million. The study came not from an anti-death penalty group, but from U.S. 9th Circuit Judge Arthur L. Alarcon, a former prosecutor, and Loyola Law School professor Paula M. Mitchell.
The money issue in capital punishment has become a big one. Recently, Governor Jerry Brown halted a construction project that would have revamped and expanded death row at San Quentin State Prison, citing the project’s $365 million price tag.