States find terrifying ways around lethal injection shortages

Several states are hiding critical information about the drugs they use in executions, leading to horrifying deaths

By Natasha Lennard
Published January 17, 2014 12:57AM (UTC)
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In Ohio Thursday morning, death row prisoner Danny McGuire was executed. According to an eye witness report, McGuire "started struggling and gasping loudly for air, making snorting and choking sounds which lasted for at least 10 minutes, with his chest heaving and his fist clinched. Deep, rattling sounds emanated from his mouth.”

This drawn out, torturous ordeal was the result of a grim experiment. Ohio state used a previously untried lethal injection method to take the inmate's life.

The two-drug combination -- okayed by a judge who ruled that the chance of McGuire enduring severe pain was slim -- was not the state's first choice of execution method. However, a shortage in the availability of pentobarbital, the anesthetic typically used by death penalty states in the U.S. in three-drug lethal cocktails, has prompted dangerous experiments like this morning's in Ohio.

Following restrictions in Europe to the export and sales of pentobarbital for executions, every approved supply of the anesthetic in the U.S. has now expired. The bleak horizon for death row inmates is now even darker, as corrections departments buy pentobarbital from unapproved sources or experiment with untested cocktails. As if execution at the hands of the state was no barbaric enough.

McCuire's torturous seeming death Thursday is not the only horror story to arise out of the shortage of lethal injection drugs. In Okhlahoma last week, as condemned prisoner Michael Lee Wilson awaited death, the lethal cocktail in his veins, he said “I feel my whole body burning.” The pentobarbital in his blood had been obtained from an unnamed compounding pharmacy within the state. Texas, South Dakota and Missouri have all similarly used pentobarbital synthesized in a compounding pharmacy in Oklahoma -- not subject to Food and Drug Administration safety regulations -- to kill people.

A complaint filed on behalf of an inmate due to be executed in Missouri at the end of the month highlights that such procurement of the anesthetic breaks state law, which prohibits nonresident pharmacies from shipping, mailing or delivering prescription drugs into Missouri “without first obtaining a pharmacy license from the Missouri Board of Pharmacy.”

The shortage of pentobarbital from Europe should have given lethal injection states serious pause for thought. It is a reflection on a growing consensus that sees capital punishment for what it is: cruel, unusual and archaic. Instead, corrections departments have scrambled to continue killing inmates on schedule -- with a string of horrifying results.

Natasha Lennard

Natasha Lennard is an assistant news editor at Salon, covering non-electoral politics, general news and rabble-rousing. Follow her on Twitter @natashalennard, email

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