Nadia N. Sawicki
Oklahoma’s botched execution of Clayton Lockett has brought increased attention to an issue that I have been concerned with for years – the increased “medicalization” of legally sanctioned executions, and, in particular, the role that medical professionals and the scientific community play in this process.
Until the 20th century, most executions were conducted publicly – execution was a communal ritual that served as a means of catharsis. But the American execution process has, over time, become less visible, and, as a consequence, subject to less public oversight. I believe that the movement of the capital punishment process “behind the curtain,” both literally and figuratively, should trouble death penalty opponents and supporters alike.
The standard lethal injection protocol used throughout the United States was developed in 1976 by Dr. Jay Chapman, Oklahoma’s state medical examiner, and Dr. Stanley Deutsch, chair of the Oklahoma Medical School anesthesiology department. Without testing or research, they settled on a three-drug protocol for executing prisoners – sodium thiopental, a short-acting barbiturate; pancuronium bromide, a paralytic; and potassium chloride, which stops the heart. Until recently, this was the combination used in every state.
Things began to change when Hospira, the U.S. pharmaceutical company that manufactured sodium thiopental, stopped making the drug in 2011. Since then, European manufacturers of sodium thiopental and pentobarbital have limited the production of these drugs, and the European Commission has restricted their export to the U.S. for execution purposes. And just last year, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia ruled in Cook v. FDA that the FDA lacks authority to permit importation of these drugs, which, when used for lethal injection, are considered “misbranded” under the FDCA. As a result, many states, including Oklahoma, have had to resort to other alternatives.