Fentanyl And The Death Penalty
RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
States around the country have been struggling to acquire drugs for lethal injections. As the state's supplies have run out, many pharmaceutical companies have balked at having their products used for executions. The state of Nevada this week was forced to postpone the execution of convicted murderer Scott Dozier. That's because the manufacture of midazolam, one of the drugs in the lethal cocktail, sued the state and a judge disallowed its use. What stands out about this postponed execution is that Nevada had hoped to become the first state to use the opioid fentanyl in a lethal injection. Robert Dunham is with the Death Penalty Information Center, which takes on the issue of how the death penalty is administered. Thank you for joining us.
ROBERT DUNHAM: Good morning.
MONTAGNE: What do you make of Nevada's attempt to add fentanyl to its drug cocktail?
DUNHAM: Well, I think fentanyl is not really the drug of choice. I think it's an accidental drug, if you will. The drugs that states previously had relied upon have become increasingly difficult for them to obtain. And once they couldn't obtain them, they started looking elsewhere. That's how they came across fentanyl.
MONTAGNE: But, of course, this is the drug many of us have heard of because it's at the heart of the opioid crisis in this country.
DUNHAM: And that's one of the ironies about this because the whole constitutional issue in lethal injection is whether the method of executing somebody is cruel and unusual. And that comes down to whether it has a substantial risk of unnecessary pain. And it's somewhat ironic that at the same time that the Justice Department and states are talking about how dangerous fentanyl is the states are now turning to it as a supposedly safe way of killing prisoners.
MONTAGNE: Yeah. Well - and, again, it has never been used in an execution so far. Is there some sort of protocol states must follow before they introduce a new drug to the cocktail?
DUNHAM: There's a requirement that each state has a protocol, but what that protocol is is a matter of state law. So states can choose whatever drugs they want to so long as they pass constitutional scrutiny.
MONTAGNE: Well, what about these lawsuits? Ultimately, could that mean the end of lethal injection as a form of capital punishment?
DUNHAM: That's a good question, and I think that what we're seeing is that states are looking for different alternatives. Some states have looked to change the drugs that they're using. Others have gone from a multiple-drug protocol to a single-drug protocol. And other states have looked for different methods altogether. So you have Utah that's adopted as a backup the firing squad, and you have Oklahoma and Alabama and Mississippi who've adopted as a backup nitrogen gas. Tennessee has gone for the electric chair as a backup. So states are looking at all the different options.
Some have also said, well, if we're not going to be able to carry it out through a method that we think is the most humane way, we're going to do away with the death penalty altogether. And that's been part of the debate when it comes to the executions, for example, in Utah. Even after they adopted the firing squad as a backup, the next year they introduced a bill that would abolish the death penalty. And although it hasn't been enacted, that's something that the states are seriously considering. So everything is on the table, and I think that we're going to see different states reacting differently, and that's in part because some states are more conservative than others. Some states are more concerned about ensuring that the executions are done as painlessly as possible. And other states, regrettably, have indicated a willingness to breach contracts and mislead drug distributors in order to improperly obtain drugs.
MONTAGNE: Robert Dunham is executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center. Thanks for joining us this morning.
DUNHAM: My pleasure.
(SOUNDBITE OF MILOSH'S "HOLD ME")
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