Botched US executions indicate failure of new drug

By staff writers
June 28, 2011

Eyewitness reports on the execution of Roy Blankenship in Georgia US on June 201, suggest that the state's first execution carried out using pentobarbital may have been botched. The prisoner appeared to experience severe pain as a result of a failure to anaesthetise him properly.

According to the Associated Press, observers described Blankenship jerking his head toward his left arm as the injection took place and making a startled face while blinking rapidly. The report continues: "He lurched to his right arm, twice lunging forward with his mouth open. He then held his head up, and his chin smacked as he mouthed words that were inaudible to observers."

Within three minutes, his movements slowed. About six minutes after the injection began, a nurse checked his vital signs to ensure he was unconscious before the execution could continue. He was pronounced dead nine minutes later. His eyes never closed.

The legal charity Repreive says that these indications that Blankenship may have remained conscious – and therefore in severe pain as the process continued – have recently been seen in botched executions using other anaesthetics which have not been properly assessed or tested.

The report raises serious questions about the efficacy of the barbiturate pentobarbital (also known as Nembutal and used in the US for the control of epileptic seizures), which has recently been adopted by a large number of states and has so far been used in 17 executions.

Georgia is one of a growing number of states that have begun using pentobarbital in executions. Many of the nation's 34 death penalty states switched to pentobarbital or have began considering a switch after Hospira Inc., the sole manufacturer of sodium thiopental in the US, said in January it would no longer make the drug.

Recent domestic shortages of the anaesthetic sodium thiopental have forced US death rows to look elsewhere for execution drugs. Initially, many states turned to imported sodium thiopental from the UK and India, but concerns over its effectiveness means many have now switched to pentobarbital.

However, this latest development suggests that pentobarbital could also leave prisoners at risk of unnecessary pain and suffering during executions – potentially breaching the US Constitutional ban on ‘cruel and unusual punishment’.


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