Death row guinea pigs: Missouri uses untested drug for executions

Reuters / Fred Prouser
Missouri has chosen propofol – the drug that killed Michael Jackson – as its instrument for future lethal injections. Opponents say the drug has not been properly tested, and may cause suffering or even unsuccessful executions.

­.US states that practice capital punishment have been in a quandary since sodium thiopental – a cocktail of three drugs given to death row prisoners since the 1970s – has become unavailable. Hospira, its maker, shifted its production to Europe, whose countries object to producing medicine that can later be used to kill people, and thus no longer sells it to US authorities.

After stocks dwindled, most states replaced sodium thiopental with a similar drug, but Missouri has chosen its own path – propofol.

"This is very, very concerning with a drug that we don't know, and seeing the problems of the one-drug method," said Kathleen Holmes of Missourians for Alternatives to the Death Penalty.

Propofol, an anesthetic, is extremely dose-sensitive, which means that while a large enough quantity can cause respiratory failure, a slightly smaller dose may simply make the prisoner unconscious for a short while (which is how it was used by Michael Jackson, before he got the dose wrong in 2009).

"If they start breathing before the heart stops, they might not die," Jonathan Groner, an Ohio State University surgeon who studies lethal injections, told AP.

This means that prison officers may be forced into a macabre sequence, having to repeatedly inject the death row inmate until he is dead.

Missouri has executed only two men in the last seven years, but has 19 more on death row.

Authorities have tried to allay concerns.

"Working with expert guidance, we are confident that this new one-drug protocol will be effective and appropriate,” said a statement from the Missouri Corrections Department.

The old three-drug method was criticized for cruelty as occasionally it left the prisoner conscious as he noticed his internal organs stopping one by one.

There is little doubt that Missouri and other states are trying to provide a more humane solution, but the lethal injection problem has descended into chaos.

Around ten states are experimenting with different drugs, with little co-operation. A one-drug execution in Arizona last month produced grotesque scenes as an inmate shook violently as the medics injected a lethal dose.

Inevitably, some methods will prove more painless than others.

With 3,200 people on death row, the US state authorities will now begin to find out exactly which ones.