STEVE INSKEEP, Host:
A shortage of a drug used in lethal injections has forced some states to temporarily halt executions. But Oklahoma is moving forward, anyway, with plans for an execution next month. The state plans to use a substitute drug, one that is used to euthanize animals, but has never been tested on people. A federal court holds a hearing on that drug today, as NPR's Kathy Lohr reports.
KATHY LOHR: Corrections officials in Oklahoma tried to find a dose of sodium thiopental to carry out the state's next execution. When they couldn't get it, they changed their protocol to allow the use of pentobarbital instead. The question before the federal court is whether substituting the new drug violates an inmate's 8th amendment right against cruel and unusual punishment. Jerry Massie with the Oklahoma Department of Corrections says it does not.
JERRY MASSIE: Yeah. We believe that that would meet all the constitutional requirements to carry out the execution. We do not believe it would be cruel and unusual punishment.
LOHR: States outline exactly how the lethal injection process will take place and some legal experts say officials can't just change the procedure at will.
DEBORAH DENNO: The state is basically experimenting on the execution of a human being using a drug that's never been used before, and this is really a first.
LOHR: Deborah Denno is a law professor at Fordham University in New York. She says the court will look at many issues involving pentobarbital, which is used to euthanize animals. There are questions about the proper dose for people. And, Denno says, if the first drug in the cocktail does not work properly it would be a violation of an inmate's rights.
DENNO: There's consensus among experts, pro-death penalty, anti-death penalty experts alike, that if this drug - the first drug - is not effective, the anesthesia, that the injection of the other two drugs would constitute cruel and unusual punishment, because the inmate would be aware of the pain and suffering.
LOHR: Two states, Ohio and Washington, now use a single drug protocol in executions, which means prisoners get a massive dose of sodium thiopental. Others are trying to figure out what to do while the drug shortage continues. Megan McCracken is with the Death Penalty Clinic at the University of California, Berkley.
MEGAN MCCRACKEN: Some states have announced that they have an adequate supply of sodium thiopental. Other states have had trouble obtaining the drug and have either turned to other states to get it. Or, as we've learned recently, have had to seek it from a foreign source, from another country.
LOHR: Kathy Lohr, NPR News.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
INSKEEP: This is NPR News.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.