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Mo. Moving Forward With Executions, Despite Secrecy Over Drug Supply

Execution gurney
Photo Credit (via Wikimedia Commons/California Department of Corrections)

A few weeks ago, we offered this report from our friends at St. Louis Public Radio about the questionable manner in which the state of Missouri got ahold of a potential execution drug. Now Missouri has a new plan to go ahead with two upcoming executions. But as Veronique LaCapra and Chris McDaniel of the Here & Now Contributors Network report, the process is anything but open.

About a month ago, Governor Jay Nixon told the Department of Corrections to make a change. He wanted them to come up with a new drug to carry out executions. The drug they’d originally planned to use is a popular medical anesthetic, and using it in an execution could have triggered a shortage in U-S hospitals. What’s more, the state obtained the drug from a company that wasn’t authorized to sell it.

A week after Missouri Governor Jay Nixon asked his Department of Corrections to find a new execution drug, the department came up with one: pentobarbital - a sedative and it's used by veterinarians to euthanized animals.

But officials at the Corrections Department didn’t stop there -- they also changed the rules. Up until now only the names of the people who actually carried out the execution were confidential.

Now it’s illegal to name anyone involved with the process - including the supplier of the lethal injection drug.

“I think the first amendment gives the public the right to know who the execution team is, and to question whether or not they’re qualified.”

That’s Tony Rothert - Legal Director of the Missouri American Civil Liberties Union, which is suing the state over its new execution protocol.

“It’s just a shroud of secrecy to try to prevent criticism and skepticism from the public about how executions are done.”

Like a number of other states, Missouri is purchasing its execution drug not from distributor, but from a compounding pharmacy.

Compounding pharmacies are in the business of preparing drugs that aren’t commercially available to meet the needs of specific patients.

For example, a doctor could write a prescription for a compounding pharmacy to create a liquid form of a medication for a child who can’t swallow pills.

That’s the normal use. But Missouri is turning to a compounding pharmacy, because Pentobarbital’s manufacturer doesn’t want its product used for lethal injection.

But compounded drugs aren’t always safe or effective.

Up until now, compounding pharmacies haven’t been subject to Food and Drug Administration Regulations, just state ones -- although new legislation would give the F-D-A more oversight.

We reviewed Missouri Board of Pharmacy inspections spanning the last decade. Even though there have been improvements in recent years, we found that about 1 out of every 5 drugs made by compounding pharmacies failed to meet existing standards.

It’s possible the Missouri Department of Corrections is buying pentobarbital from a reliable pharmacy. But because the state made the name of the supplier confidential - we just don’t know.

We can’t verify if the company is registered and licensed properly, we can’t verify if the company has been cited in the past for shoddy practices, because with the new rule, there's no public oversight over where the execution drugs are coming from.

Some people listening could be wondering why we should care. Missouri isn’t giving death row inmates these drugs to make them well -- it’s doing it to execute them.

John Simon is a constitutional lawyer working with the legal team for Joseph Paul Franklin, the man convicted of killing multiple people, and set to be executed next week.

Simon tells us the Bill of Rights protects everyone from cruel and unusual punishment.

“One scenario will be that he will die a lengthy, excruciating death. Criminal penalties are not intended to drag the rest of us down to the level of the worst offenders.”

We’ve asked the Missouri Department of Corrections to release documents that would provide some insight into the quality of its execution drugs. So far, they have delayed and used the new confidentiality rule to withhold the records we’ve asked for.

We asked Governor Jay Nixon if he told the Corrections Department to make the supplier of the execution drug confidential.

“I didn’t uh -- the only thing I instructed them was that we need to to be sure that we have a protocol, and for them to move forward, vis a vis the drug and work effectively and get another method. That’s all I said.”

Since the Governor says he did not tell the Corrections Department to make the supplier confidential, we asked his office if he will tell them to make it public again.

His office didn’t get back to us, and neither did the Department of Corrections.

Unless there is some legal intervention from one of the numerous lawsuits against the state of Missouri, its Department of Corrections will carry out its first execution using a drug from a compounding pharmacy next week.