US drug shortage could change death penalty

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The United States is having difficulty getting the drugs it needs to kill condemned prisoners humanely, putting the death penalty under pressure.

Companies don’t want to be connected to it, and abolitionists are against the older ways of killing.

Oklahoma has suspended the executions of Clayton Lockett and Charles Warner — a man who raped and murdered a woman and a man who raped and murdered a baby — after the state was unable to answer their questions whether an untested combination of drugs sold as lethal would work as predicted.

The constitution says those to die have a right to know how it will be, but more authorities are being secretive about supplies, as traditional sources dry up, complicating things.

One crucial case was that of Dennis McGuire, who took more than 20 minutes to die last January. It is reported that he suffered. It was a first-time use of the drugs.

In 1989, McGuire raped and murdered 22-year-old Joy Stewart, who was seven months pregnant.

Death row inmates in the US have a constitutional protection from cruel and unusual treatment, and critics’ calls are increasing for a moratorium on capital punishment.

Since 2011, European firms have refused to sell barbiturates to American prisons for executions. The last American company that made the anaesthetic that was commonly used in the past ended production in that same year. States turned to a product used on animals. But then the last European exporter of that, a Danish company, stopped. In this cycle of what experts have called experimentation, several states, such as Texas, Missouri and Oklahoma, have turned to pharmacies which customise small batches of drugs — a grey area of business.

The Supreme Court reinstated capital punishment in 1976. Since then, more than 1,300 people have been executed. More than 3,000 are waiting for it. The death penalty is still on the law books for use in 32 states, and by the army and federal government.

Also still allowable by law in at least some of these are the methods of lethal injection, the electric chair, the gas chamber, hanging and the firing squad.

Tennessee is close to approving bringing back the chair, though the Death Penalty Information Centre said this would probably be challenged on the grounds that electrocution is, by today’s standards, unconstitutionally cruel compared with lethal injection.

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