A botched Oklahoma execution got national attention last week, when an inmate who was receiving a lethal injection had a violent reaction and suffered a fatal heart attack.
Oklahoma was using an experimental form of sedative known as midazolam. Midazolam itself does not normally kill, but is used to render the inmate unconscious before the fatal drug (usually a potassium chloride overdose) is administered. This particular cocktail came from nontraditional sources, as the 34 states that use executions have not been able to buy lethal injections drugs through the usual pharmaceutical companies since 2011.
Most drug manufacturers are located in the European Union, which has had restrictions on drugs being exported for capital punishment since 2011. Meanwhile, the only American manufacturer Hospira suspended production of its compounds after public and industry pressure in 2009.
South Carolina is among those states that currently lack the drugs, according to the state Department of Correction, which has not carried out an execution since 2011. That’s the longest gap since no executions occurred from September 1991 to August 1995.
“We use pentobarbital, pancuronium bromide, and potassium chloride in the three drug sequence,” agency spokeswoman Stephanie Givens told South Carolina Radio Network. “But we don’t have any pancuronium bromide or potassium chloride… and we probably won’t be getting it.”
South Carolina’s situation is hardly unique, according to the Death Penalty Information Center. The DPIC is an information clearinghouse on capital punishment that generally opposes the practice.
“States are now down to their third or fourth choice when it comes to lethal injections,” the group’s executive director Richard Dieter told South Carolina Radio Network.
Givens said South Carolina does not have a means to acquire the compounds it historically uses if the state Supreme Court were to schedule an execution. The court normally does so only after it is notified by the state Attorney General’s Office that an inmate has exhausted the legal process.
Death row inmates in South Carolina are allowed to choose between lethal injection and the electric chair. Nearly all have chosen the drug injection. The state’s last execution was in May 2011, when 36-year-old Jeffrey Motts was given a lethal injection for strangling his cellmate. Motts was already serving a prison sentence at the time for a previous double murder conviction.
There are 45 current inmates who have received death sentences in South Carolina, according to the Department of Corrections. Most are either appealing their sentence or have had the death sentence reversed to life imprisonment.
North Carolina has not executed an inmate for more than seven years. Georgia’s last execution came in February 2013, before the state’s top court ruled that Georgia officials could not hide the identity of pharmacies which provide the lethal drugs. Georgia and Oklahoma have passed laws that try to protect the identities of pharmacies which provide the drug cocktails. South Carolina does not have such a law on its books, Dieter said.
He said his organization has concerns that states trying to find new, untested drugs are using a form of “human experimentation.”
“When you put them in mixed in with other drugs, at new dosages, and try to see how long a person lives, you’re in experimental areas,” he said. “And things go wrong.”