The US Department of Justice is currently reviewing a request from thirteen states looking for the government’s help in obtaining supplies of sodium thiopental.
The only US manufacturer, Hospira, has now ceased all production of the drug, and its export from Britain for execution purposes has been banned since last November. Executing states are therefore increasingly desperate to get their hands on enough sodium thiopental to carry out the executions they have planned over the next few months.
Alabama, Colorado, Delaware, Florida, Idaho, Mississippi, Missouri, Nevada, Oregon, Tennessee, Utah, Washington and Wyoming have all put their names to a letter addressed to Attorney General Eric Holder, in which they ask for help identifying new sources of sodium thiopental, or alternatively, that federal supplies be made available to state departments of corrections. Now that the chemical can no longer be imported from Britain, state authorities have been looking further afield – Nebraska, for example, purchased a large quantity of thiopental very cheaply from an Indian factory. Although the state’s DoC has apparently tested the drug to confirm its identity, its effectiveness remains unknown; the Food and Drug Administration refuses to regulate pharmaceuticals that will be used in lethal injections as that responsibility apparently does not fall within its remit of protecting the public health. If the sodium thiopental proves inadequately potent dozens of botched executions could follow, with the prisoner conscious and in terrible pain during the process.
On the Department of Justice website, the DoJ defines its “mission statement” as being:
“To enforce the law and defend the interests of the United States according to the law; to ensure public safety against threats foreign and domestic; to provide federal leadership in preventing and controlling crime; to seek just punishment for those guilty of unlawful behaviour; and to ensure fair and impartial administration of justice for all Americans.”
Firstly, it is extremely difficult to see how maintaining an extortionately expensive system of capital punishment “defend[s] the interests of the United States” when the country is still plunged in economic gloom and executing states are facing bankruptcy. Secondly, one need only look to the cases of Edward Earl Johnson and Cameron Todd Willingham to see that “unlawful behaviour” is not prerequisite to the death penalty – indeed, two Supreme Court Justices have publicly stated that they do not believe the execution of an innocent person to be unconstitutional. And even in cases of clear guilt, state-sanctioned murder is hardly a “just punishment”. Thirdly, the disproportionate percentage of African Americans and inmates from impoverished backgrounds on death row puts paid to the suggestion that the application of the death penalty in the US constitutes “fair and impartial administration of justice”.
Overall, it seems that the Attorney General would be perfectly justified in adopting the FDA’s ‘get out of jail free’ card, and refusing to respond to pleas for help in sourcing thiopental on the basis that it does not fall within his department’s remit.