Republican-controlled states are spending astronomical sums of their taxpayer money to buy drugs from illicit traffickers in a desperate and almost certainly illegal attempt to carry out lethal injection executions.
Documents obtained by The Guardian reveal the full scope of the spending bombardment that US states have embarked on with the death penalty as they try to restart executions delayed by the pandemic. The findings show that Republican leaders are not only willing to trample on their own state and federal laws, but they are also willing to spend lavishly in the process.
The most staggering outlay has been made by Arizona, a state in which Republicans have the houses of the legislature and the governor’s mansion. A highly redacted single-page document obtained by The Guardian records that last October the department of corrections ordered 1,000 vials of pentobarbital sodium salt, each containing 1 mg, to be shipped in “unmarked jars and boxes.”
At the bottom of the document, the record says: “Amount paid: $ 1,500,000.”
Arizona’s extraordinary $ 1.5 million payment clearly illustrates just how far the state is willing to go to kill inmates on death row. Pentobarbital is a sedative used in executions in Arizona, with 5 grams injected into the inmate to induce a fatal overdose.
Arizona’s splurge on illicitly executed drugs is all the more surprising given that it was done in the midst of a pandemic when many of its citizens were suffering. At the time the payment was made, nearly a million Arizonans were estimated to be battling hunger, including more than 300,000 children.
It is a felony under Arizona and federal law to dispense pentobarbital without a valid prescription. Doctors cannot write prescriptions for the drug for use in executions, as taking the life of a prisoner has no medical or therapeutic purpose.
The Guardian asked the Arizona Department of Corrections to explain its costly and apparently illegal purchase of pentobarbital. The department said it does not discuss how it obtains the execution drugs.
He also stressed that the information the Guardian was requesting was “confidential by law,” meaning it is secret by court order. A spokesperson added: “Pentobarbital has been administered legally and successfully for many years.”
Other documents obtained by The Guardian relate to Tennessee and Missouri. In Tennessee, the department of corrections spent $ 190,000 from 2017 to 2020 to acquire midazolam, vecuronium bromide and potassium chloride, the three drugs in its lethal injection protocol.
During that period, the state executed two prisoners, Billy Irick and Donnie Johnson, using those chemicals. That suggests a cost per run of nearly $ 100,000.
In Missouri, the prison service invested more than $ 160,000 in lethal injection executions, documents reveal. That spending was made between 2015 and 2020, when Missouri executed 10 inmates, resulting in an average cost to taxpayers of $ 16,000 per execution.
These large sums are far from how lethal injections were initially conceived. The use of medical drugs to kill prisoners was started in 1977 in Oklahoma, where officials were convinced it would be both humane and cheap; they predicted it would cost just $ 10 per run.
Neither aspiration has proven to be true. The alleged humanity of lethal injections has been disproved by a series of failed procedures that have shocked the nation.
The last time Arizona killed an inmate was in 2014, when the executioners took almost two hours to inject Joseph Wood, who was gasping and groaning, 15 times while tied to the stretcher.
Behind the extravagant spending by states is the widespread refusal of pharmaceutical manufacturers and distributors to allow their products to be used in American executions. Medical drugs are made to save lives, they argue, not to end them.
As a result, states that apply the death penalty have been forced to sign increasingly dubious, and often illegal, agreements with domestic and foreign suppliers. In 2010, five US states illegally purchased drugs for execution without approval from the Food and Drug Administration from Dream Pharma, a wholesaler operating out of a driving school in London.
Since then, states have pushed legal limits in their fight to evade the boycott of pharmaceutical supplies. “States have switched from drug to drug, crossed state lines to get drugs, paid cash, and failed to record payments to keep purchases secret,” said Deborah Denno, a professor at Fordham Law School. .
Denno added: “All of these actions are violations of state or federal laws, and they have all ended up raising the price of drugs.”
In recent years, 19 states, as well as the federal government, have moved to conceal their execution practices in secret, working especially to conceal the source of their lethal injection drugs. That also allows unscrupulous producers and distributors to raise their prices.
“Every time a government retreats to secrecy, you know there is a problem. If you don’t take responsibility, you open the door to favoritism, grafting and dealing with many shady characters who do not consider the public interest, ”said Robert Dunham, executive director of the Center for Information on the Death Penalty. .
Prashant Yadav, a professor at Harvard Medical School, said prices often rose 1,000% or more above the rate charged in regular pharmaceutical markets. “These drugs are marketed in an area of unclear regulatory apparatus, so they typically charge a higher price,” he said.
Another cause of inflated drug prices is the cost of legal disputes. Between 2018 and 2020, Nevada spent more than $ 100,000 defending itself in a lawsuit filed by a pharmaceutical manufacturer that objected to its drugs being fraudulently obtained for use in executions.
This mismanagement of public money is likely to feature in the current debate in the Nevada state assembly, where lawmakers are considering abolishing the death penalty entirely. Even as the legislature debates its abolition bill, state authorities are lobbying vigorously for the execution of the death row inmate Zane Floyd.
The Guardian documents, which were obtained through public records requests, do not reveal where Arizona, Tennessee and Missouri were acquiring the lethal injection drugs at such extreme cost. However, we know how they intend to use the chemicals.
Arizona is pushing to restart executions after the seven-year hiatus that followed Wood’s failed execution. The state attorney general has filed a notice that he intends to seek imminent execution warrants for two inmates: Frank Atwood, who was sentenced to death for the 1984 murder of a girl despite inconsistencies in the evidence. against him; and Clarence Dixon, who has a long history of mental illness, including schizophrenia.
Tennessee hopes to kill Pervis Payne. The inmate’s execution was postponed from December due to Covid until after April 9, when a new court order can be filed. Questions have also been raised about Payne’s possible innocence.
One of the paradoxes of the current struggle to acquire lethal injection drugs illicitly and at such high prices is that the efforts are made exclusively by Republicans, who often claim to be the party of fiscal conservatism and the small government. Hannah Cox, national manager for Conservatives Concerned About the Death Penalty, said the spending revealed by The Guardian was shocking.
“You cannot run and say that you are a fiscal conservative republican, or that you are a government in favor of limitations and the free market, and then behave like that. It is completely contradictory to all conservative values, ”he said.