Why Utah is bringing back the firing squad for executions
The future of executions in Utah may not be lethal injections, but rather five professional shooters firing at a prisoner's heart.
On Monday, Utah became one of the few states to allow firing squads for executions after Gov. Gary Herbert signed a law approving this controversial method as a backup if the state can't restock its depleted supply of lethal injection drugs.
During a firing-squad execution, a prisoner is seated in a chair that's stacked with sandbags to prevent bullets from ricocheting, according to the Associated Press. Five shooters, picked from a pool of trained volunteers, aim their rifles through slots on a wall and target the prisoner's chest (because it's a larger target than the head). If the shooters hit, the prisoner's heart should rupture and cause a relatively quick death from blood loss.
It's unclear whether Utah will run out of execution drugs and actually use the firing squad on any of the eight prisoners on death row who didn't choose the form of execution before 2004, when the state last allowed the option.
But the state's fallback to what seems like such a gruesome and outdated form of execution demonstrates the depth and danger of the lethal injection drug shortage, which has left the future of the death penalty unclear in Utah, Texas, Oklahoma, and the 29 other states where the practice is legal, and added a new angle to the perennial debate about the morality and effectiveness of capital punishment.
European pharmaceutical companies are making it really hard to get lethal injection drugs
Over the past few years, a shortage of sodium thiopental, a key drug in lethal injections, has left states scrambling for alternative ways to execute prisoners and has inspired some to shroud the process in secrecy.
The shortage began around 2010, when drug suppliers around the world, including the US, began refusing to supply drugs for the injections — out of either opposition to the death penalty or concerns about having their products associated with executions.
"The drugs were being cut off right and left," Deborah Denno, a death penalty expert at Fordham University, said.
Hospira Inc. was the sole US supplier of sodium thiopental, according to Denno. But Hospira stopped producing the drug in 2011, after struggling to procure active ingredients for its production and fielding legal threats from authorities in Italy, where the death penalty is vehemently opposed.
Some states still managed to import sodium thiopental from shadier overseas sources. But beginning in 2012, the US District Court of the District of Columbia issued several rulings banning imports of the drugs, deciding that the imported supplies didn't meet FDA regulations.
As the shortage continued, states turned to other European companies for alternative drugs, such as phenobarbital and propofol, that are typically used as sedatives for surgeries. But these companies — under pressure from a European Union export ban, activists like Reprieve, and foreign governments that prohibit the death penalty — over time refused to supply the drugs.
As these companies either stopped supplying drugs or were unable to export to the US, states began to look for new — and sometimes untested — ways to execute prisoners.
Unregulated compounding pharmacies made up for the shortage
With pharmaceutical companies out of the picture, states resorted to compounding pharmacies to make the drugs, which until now escaped most regulations since they did small, mostly out-of-sight transactions with individuals, not major customers. The US-based pharmacies began to produce experimental, sometimes secretive cocktails for states' executions.
Compounding pharmacies were originally meant to make custom drugs for individual people, not major buyers like state governments, Denno said. As a result, their drug cocktails can often be very shoddy — Georgia stopped an execution because its lethal injection drug was "cloudy"— and have been decried as experimental and dangerous by civil rights groups such as theAmerican Civil Liberties Union.
But even compounding pharmacies may soon stop providing execution drugs to states. TheInternational Academy of Compounding Pharmacists on March 24 announced that it "discourages its members from participating in the preparation, dispensing, or distribution of compounded medications for use in legally authorized executions."
The stance may be a way for compounding pharmacies, which are largely unregulated, to avoid the extra regulatory scrutiny that can come with producing lethal injection drugs. "These compounding pharmacies already have enough of a [public relations] issue," Denno said. Massachusetts, for instance, in 2014 passed a law cracking down on compounding pharmacies after a local company's drugs were implicated in the deaths of more than 60 people. Producing lethal injection drugs, Denno said, "is only going to invite further scrutiny."
But instead of stepping up regulations, some death penalty states have adopted measures to shield compounding pharmacies that provide lethal drugs from outside scrutiny.
In December, Ohio passed a law that will keep suppliers of lethal drug injections anonymous. John Murphy, executive director of the Ohio Prosecuting Attorneys Association, which supports the law, said last December that the changes are not meant to make the execution process more secretive. "This just protects the identity of the people involved so they don't get harassed, intimidated, or attacked," he told me.