Execution Drugs in Short Supply as Europe Opposes Death Penalty

By Paul Gaita 02/19/14

Despite increasing restrictions by the EU, some U.S. states have tried to counter their efforts by using controversial drug combinations that cause long, painful deaths.

Back to the old days?

A year-end report from the non-profit Death Penalty Information Center has underscored a growing problem for both sides of the death penalty argument.

The Center’s report noted that only 39 executions were carried out last year, which marked the second time in nearly two decades that fewer than 40 death sentences were carried out in the United States. And while the high level of public opposition to the death penalty may be a contributing factor – only 60 percent of respondents in a recent Gallup poll voted in favor of the sentence, which marks its lowest level of support in 40 years – the most significant roadblock for the death penalty in America remains the European Union’s tough restrictions on the sale of anesthetics and other drugs used for execution.

Many EU countries have long opposed lethal execution, citing their devastating history with totalitarian regimes that handed out death sentences without trial. Since 2005, they have exerted their position by restricting the export of goods “for the purpose of capital punishment or for the purpose of torture.” Further restrictions imposed in 2010 and 2011 have created a widespread shortage of drugs like sodium thiopental and pentobarbital in the United States. American companies have also followed suit, most recently on February 17 when The Apothecary Shoppe, an Oklahoma-based pharmacy, refused to provide drugs for the execution of death row inmate Michael Anthony Taylor.

Government and law officials in the 32 states where the death penalty remains legal have attempted to counter the blockade through the use of combined drugs, but the results remain largely untested and in several cases have resulted in painful deaths for the condemned individuals. The situation has given rise to calls from some officials to call for an end to the death penalty in their states, while others have suggested returning to older methods of execution, including death by firing squad.

Joe Deters, the chief prosecutor for Hamilton County, Ohio and a vigorous proponent of the death penalty in his state, summed up both sides of the argument by saying, “They ought to just bring back the firing squad – I don’t care,” Deters said. “If they’re going to have a death penalty in Ohio, they should carry it out. And if you don’t want it, get rid of it.”

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Paul Gaita lives in Los Angeles. He has contributed to the Los Angeles Times, Variety, LA Weekly, Amazon.com and The Los Angeles Beat, among many other publications and websites.