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Opinión: States resort to illegal imports for execution drugs

Death penalty opponent Sister Helen Prejean, center, tries to put death row inmate Richard Glossip on a speaker phone outside the Oklahoma State Penitentiary in McAlester after his execution was delayed on Sept. 30 because the state discovered it had the wrong drug for its lethal-injection protocol.

Death penalty opponent Sister Helen Prejean, center, tries to put death row inmate Richard Glossip on a speaker phone outside the Oklahoma State Penitentiary in McAlester after his execution was delayed on Sept. 30 because the state discovered it had the wrong drug for its lethal-injection protocol.

(Sue Ogrocki / Associated Press)

Any day now the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation will be announcing what drug it intends to use to execute the 747 people on death row. Here’s a suggestion: Avoid sodium thiopental, or, like Arizona, Nebraska and other states, risk a showdown with the federal government over illegal drug imports.

Yes, that’s where we are now with the quest to execute condemned killers -- states resorting to illicit imports from a shadowy overseas supplier (which Buzzfeed details here) to commit an immoral act.

The background: Sodium thiopental for years was the preferred first drug in the three-drug lethal-injection protocol. It renders the inmate unconscious before a paralytic -- usually pancuronium bromide -- is injected to seize up the muscle system and lung function, followed by potassium chloride to stop the heart. But in 2011, the sole remaining U.S. manufacturer of sodium thiopental, Hospira, got out of the business under pressure from European countries where Hospira’s manufacturing facilities were located, and which oppose the death penalty.

The easy solution: Import sodium thiopental from countries less concerned about whether the drugs will be used to heal or to kill. But the U.S. Food and Drug Administration never cleared sodium thiopental for import. So, when Arizona earlier this year sought to buy 1,000 vials from a provider in India, customs officials seized them, according to the Arizona Republic.

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Nebraska has run into a similar problem, as has Georgia.

As if turning to illicit sources for the drugs wasn’t bad enough, Oklahoma recently suspended executions after it realized that its stash of potassium chloride was actually potassium acetate -- and that it used that wrong drug to execute Charles Warner in January. A state investigation is underway, but one large, looming question is why did it take so long for Warner’s autopsy report to bring the mistake to light? Whoever conducted the autopsy should have noted that the wrong execution drug was used, and the state should have made the information public.

That’s Oklahoma’s problem to sort out. The bigger issue here is why do states cling to this grotesque practice of executing people? As we’ve seen time and again, the inherent imperfections in the criminal justice system make it too unreliable to determine whether someone should die. Not only is that system deeply flawed, the states can’t even follow their own protocols -- from legally obtaining execution drugs to obtaining the correct ones -- so why should the public put faith in them to get any of this right?

If guilt requires a verdict beyond reasonable doubt, we should apply the same standard to the death penalty system itself. And it keeps giving us plenty of reason to doubt its fairness, accuracy and morality.

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We may be getting to the place where the Supreme Court might finally agree. It’s hard to count votes, but Justice Antonin Scalia -- a staunch defender of capital punishment -- this week repeated an observation from last month that he “wouldn’t be surprised” if the court ends the death penalty.

We can only hope.

Follow Scott Martelle on Twitter @smartelle


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