Pennsylvania sued for details on secret execution cocktail
The American Civil Liberties Union, along with four newspapers, has filed a lawsuit against the state of Pennsylvania seeking to uncover the source of the drugs used in its lethal injection procedures.
As Pennsylvania prepares to execute its first inmate in 15 years, the ACLU, the Guardian, the Philadelphia Inquirer, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, and the Philadelphia City Paper are arguing that the state’s refusal to reveal where it purchases its drugs is illegal.
Specifically, the group claims the state is violating the First Amendment by keeping these details secret, particularly since it keeps the publications from accurately reporting on issues associated with the death penalty. Additionally, they argue, the secrecy illegally keeps citizens in the dark.
“In light of the recent string of horrifically botched executions, the public is entitled to know how the state obtained the drugs it plans to use to carry out executions here in Pennsylvania,” said Reggie Shuford, executive director of the ACLU of Pennsylvania, in a statement.
For its part, the state argues that divulging its source could mean that the supplier would decline to continue developing the drugs.
The lawsuit comes as Pennsylvania prepares to execute 57-year-old Hubert Michael on September 22. Hubert originally pleaded guilty to raping and murdering a 16-year-old girl and has been on death row for 20 years.
The Guardian noted that the state is planning to use a lethal injection cocktail consisting of three separate drugs to kill Michael, with the ACLU and media outlets primarily concerned over the source of the state’s pentobarbital supply.
The death penalty has been placed under increased scrutiny ever since the European Union banned its pharmaceutical companies from selling drugs that could be used in lethal injections to US state correctional departments. The ban – in place over Europe’s moral objections to capital punishment – has forced states to seek other ways to obtain the drugs it wants. In some cases – as in Pennsylvania – officials have turned to compounding pharmacies for their drugs.
However, these pharmacies do not produce their drugs under regulations enforced by the Food and Drug Administration, causing many to question just how safe they are.
In multiple cases this year, executions have gone wrong, with inmates subjected to long, painful procedures that critics say violated their right to be protected from cruel and unusual punishment. In Ohio, death row inmate Dennis McGuire took more than 20 minutes to die after drugs were administered, during which he reportedly made choking sounds and gasped for air.
Meanwhile, a botched execution in Oklahoma caused an inmate to die of a heart attack after officials nearly burst his vein and drugs flowed into his body.
In light of these events, the ACLU argued that gaining more information about Pennsylvania’s drugs was paramount.
“The information sought by our clients is central to today’s debate about capital punishment. If the drugs are not made properly, they will not work properly, and the public should be very concerned about that possibility given the gruesome executions we have heard about in other states,” said Mary Catherine Roper, senior staff attorney at the ACLU of Pennsylvania.
A similar lawsuit was also filed earlier this year in Missouri, when local outlets, as well as the Associated Press and the Guardian, asked a judge to force the state to reveal its source for drugs.