The Arizona Department of Corrections has announced that it will continue executions, despite a nearly seven-year hiatus.
In 2014, the state of Arizona paused all of its executions following the botched lethal injection of Joseph Atwood, who was convicted of double murder. Injected with a combination of midazolam and hydromorphone, witnesses to the execution reported that Atwood lived for almost two hours following his first injection. Atwood died after receiving 15 injections of the chemical compound, gasping for air throughout the process.
Experimentation with new drugs that can be used for lethal injections has expanded since Atwood’s death, particularly because of a decline in the supply of sodium thiopental, which had been used as one of three drugs in a “drug cocktail” used by most states for many years to carry out executions.
Sodium thiopental was manufactured by a single company, Hospira, which announced in 2009 that they would no longer produce the drug. This came after their supplier stopped manufacturing the drug’s active ingredient, and the Italian government called on Hospira to ensure that their products would never be used for lethal injections (Hospira could not control its buyers’ will, so they stopped production to avoid legal action).
The traditional three-drug cocktail used to execute convicted criminals was quite simple in theory: (1) a barbiturate sedates an individual and acts as a painkiller (usually sodium thiopental), (2) a “neuromuscular blocking drug such as vecuronium bromide” is employed to ensure that the subject does not struggle, and (3) potassium chloride is injected, which stops the heart and completes the execution.
Developed by Jay Chapman, the Oklahoma chief medical examiner, in 1977, the three-drug cocktail method has been adopted by state governments and the federal government since. Proposed as a more humane alternative to firing squad, gas-chamber executions, and hangings, the method caught on.
Because the process begins with a sedative, and is followed by what is essentially forced paralysis, a subject’s sedation may have worn off by time they are injected with potassium chloride, which is renowned for producing excruciating pain. The effect of such pain on an individual will likely not be evident, because the subject is fully neuromuscular-ly restricted.
This has led some ethicists and experts to conclude that the process is “cruel and unusual,” but the U.S. Supreme Court has repeatedly upheld its constitutionality. For the moment, and for the foreseeable future, this ethical dilemma is one for states and legislators to solve, not courts.
Arizona’s new lethal injection method
Towards the end of the Trump Administration, Attorney General Bill Barr ordered that the Department of Justice resume federal executions, using a new drug: pentobarbital. Pentobarbital is similar to sodium thiopental, except that it can be used by itself to execute convicts rather than as part of a larger “cocktail.” Its effects are similar to a barbiturate overdoes, also causing a complete shutdown of an individual’s nervous system.
This eliminates the possibility of the “silent agony” which could occur under the three-drug method, though it has been reported that states such as Texas which have adopted this method have seen troubling results: convicts have been noted to “writh… on the floor, scream[ing] in pain and sa[ying] they could feel themselves “burning.””
Arizona has decided to pursue the same path as the Trump Administration’s Department of Justice, announcing that they have decided to utilize pentobarbital for future executions, which they aim to resume soon. While the supply of the drug is also limited, it is not clear how much of the drug the state has purchased or plans to acquire. It was revealed that in 2019 the Department of Corrections purchased 1,000 vials of pentobarbital sodium salt.
Attorney General Mark Brnovich has said that “Capital punishment is the law in Arizona and the appropriate response to those who commit the most shocking and vile murders. This is about the administration of justice and ensuring the last word still belongs to the innocent victims who can no longer speak for themselves.”
Brnovich filed a motion in early April to move forward with the executions of two death-row inmates, Frank Atwood and Clarence Dixon, who were both convicted of violent murders.
Other states have decided to scrap the lethal injection method, re-establishing older avenues of execution such as firing squad and electrocution.
While some have argued that these older methods are also inhumane, others have argued that they are, at the least, more humane than botched lethal injections.
As Arizona wrestles with the death penalty and the ethical issues surrounding its implementation and usage, lawmakers and voters will no doubt consider its merits and moral decency.
Joe Pitts is the CEO and President of the Western Tribune.