Execution Chaos: Witnesses Say Executions Are Botched as States Use Untested, Secret Drug Cocktails

09.02.2014 - Democracy Now!

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As drug companies refuse to let their products be used for the death penalty, states are using untested drug combinations that have resulted in deaths like that of Dennis McGuire in Ohio, where the state used an untested two-drug method despite warnings it might cause immense suffering. We speak with the reporter who witnessed the execution and with a lawyer for a man executed in Missouri with an entirely different lethal drug cocktail, made by a pharmacy the state refuses to name. Meanwhile, on Thursday Virginia lawmakers failed to pass a law that would let death row prisoners die in the electric chair now that the state has run out of the chemicals used to make up its three-drug execution cocktail, and is unable to locate more. The delayed vote could impose a temporary moratorium in Virginia, which executes more people than any other state besides Texas. The execution drugs’ scarcity stems from the refusal of manufacturers in Europe and the United States to let them be used to put people to death. We speak with Alan Johnson, reporter with The Columbus Dispatch in Ohio, who witnessed McGuire’s execution and says he observed him gasping for air, and that he appeared to be choking. We are also joined by Cheryl Pilate, one of the lead attorneys for Herbert Smulls, who was executed Jan. 29 with a lethal dose of pentobarbital that was made by a compounding pharmacy the state refuses to name. Also joining us is Megan McCracken, attorney with the University of California, Berkeley, School of Law’s Death Penalty Clinic, where she is an expert on lethal injection methods.

TRANSCRIPT

This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: We begin today’s show with a look at the chaos surrounding executions in the United States now that many of the drugs used for lethal injections are no longer available. Some states have moved forward by using untested combinations that have resulted in what critics say are cruel and unusual deaths. The final words of Oklahoma prisoner Michael Lee Wilson just 20 seconds into his execution in January were, quote, “I feel my whole body burning.” Weeks later, Ohio executed Dennis McGuire using an untested two-drug method despite warnings it might cause immense suffering. His son, also named Dennis, witnessed the execution.

DENNIS McGUIRE: Shortly after the warden buttoned his jacket to signal start of the execution, my dad began gasping and struggling to breathe. I watched his stomach heave. I watched him try to sit up against the straps on the gurney. I watched him repeatedly clench his fists. It appeared to me he was fighting for his life, but suffocating. The agony and terror of watching my dad suffocate to death lasted more than 19 minutes. It was the most awful moment in my life to witness my dad’s execution. I can’t think of any other way to describe it than torture.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Not long after McGuire was executed in Ohio, the state of Missouri put to death Herbert Smulls with yet another chemical cocktail that used three drugs instead of two.

Meanwhile, on Thursday Virginia lawmakers failed to pass a law that would let death row prisoners die in the electric chair now that the state has run out of the chemicals used to make up its three-drug execution cocktail and is unable to locate more. The delayed vote could impose a temporary moratorium in Virginia, which executes more people than any other state besides Texas. The execution drugs’ scarcity stems from the refusal of manufacturers in Europe and the United States to let them be used to put people to death. Reports of the first company to refuse such use came out in 2011.

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