The very existence of the death penalty in American law is troublesome, to say the least. But, to make matters worse, the 32 U.S. states that persist in executing people are now looking for a new way to kill. And Missouri, where I live, is leading the way, if one can call recent developments leadership.
To explain: Until recently, Missouri used a three-drug protocol for its executions. But the supply of the first drug in that protocol—sodium thiopental—has run out, because its manufacturers no longer sell it as an execution drug. That puts Missouri in the unseemly position of desperately seeking another drug to end the life of people sentenced to death.
Some states replaced sodium thiopental with pentobarbital, but supplies of that drug have also dwindled, after its manufacturer also announced that it will not sell it for use in executions.
So, Missouri has decided to try a new tack: propofol—the sedative that achieved notoriety in the death of pop star Michael Jackson. With that decision, Missouri will be the first state to use propofol for executions.
That move is regarded as iffy by many, who say that propofol has not been properly vetted and may not be appropriate as a death penalty drug.
Worse yet, Missouri is actually in a hurry to get to the front of the line, because the state’s existing supply of the drug is about to reach its expiration date (!) And, in the near future, it’s also going to be virtually impossible to purchase propofol, because the three drug companies that manufacture the drug- -Fresenius Kabi, Teva, and Hospira- all say they won’t allow their distributors to sell the drug to departments of corrections if it will be used in executions.
In the meantime, organizations who track developments in the death-penalty world want to investigate propofol to determine “whether it’s all going to be humane and proper…or whether they are just going ahead because they don’t want these drugs to expire…”
But Missouri state officials aren’t waiting for further investigation. They’ve set execution dates for two convicted murderers—one in October 2013 and another in November. Missouri State Attorney General Chris Koster is impatient with the courts, who have held up these executions for several years. Earlier this year, Koster not only expressed his impatience, but also threatened something that shocked a lot of people:
“For nearly a decade, the mere pendency of federal litigation has been used as an artificial hurdle, unauthorized by law or federal court order, to prevent the State from carrying out the death penalty,” Koster said. “The Court’s current position has allowed successive, limited supplies of propofol to reach their expiration dates. Unless the Court changes its current course, the legislature will soon be compelled to fund statutorily-authorized alternative methods of execution to carry out lawful judgments.”
To clarify, what Koster referred to as “statutorily-authorized alternate methods of execution,” is the gas chamber, which, although unused since 1965, is still legal in Missouri. He’s threatening us with the gas chamber?
Commentary: State officials everywhere could do America service by jettisoning the inane quest for better execution drugs, and working, instead, to end the immoral and ineffective use of the death penalty. If it’s so difficult to find a death-penalty method that’s “humane,” why bother? Why not join the many countries who have outlawed the death penalty entirely? And to you, Mr. Missouri Attorney General, I ask this: What’s more important, the expiration date of a drug or the forced expiration of a human life?
Gloria Shur Bilchik is a freelance writer and community volunteer in St. Louis, Missouri. She is the editor of Occasional Planet. She views the preservation of progressive values as vital to making the US a humane, livable place for her children and grandchildren.