Pfizer ban on lethal drug sales complicates executions in 20 US states

Drug Firm Blocks Death Penalty Use

May 17 (Reuters) - More than 20 U.S. states that use a combination of drugs to carry out lethal injections will find it harder to conduct executions due to Pfizer's ban on sales of its chemicals, but the move will have little impact on the handful that rely on a single drug.

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The pharmaceutical giant's move last week cuts off the last major U.S. source for drugs in the deadly mixes, and it adds to the difficulties of states that were already struggling to procure chemicals for lethal injections.

Among the states affected are Florida and Oklahoma, which have been among the leaders in executions since the U.S. Supreme Court reinstated the death penalty in 1976.

Drug scarcity is also an obstacle for Alabama, Arizona, Arkansas, Delaware, Indiana, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, South Carolina, Tennessee and Wyoming.

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Pfizer ban on lethal drug sales complicates executions in 20 US states
Seated on his bunk in the death cell of Iberia Parish Courthouse, convinced that 'The Lord is Still with Me,' is Willie Francis, a 17-year-old who won a million-to-one chance of a reprieve from death when the electric chair failed to kill him, or even hurt him, at his scheduled execution on May 3. Sentenced to die for the murder of a St. Martinville druggist a year ago, Francis was strapped in the chair. The current was applied. The doomed man squirmed and jumped. But when the current was shut off, he was unharmed. 'It tickled a little,' he said. The state will try again to carry out the execution on Thursday May 9th.

(Bettmann via Getty Images)

This is John Wayne Gacy's police arrest photo from Dec. 21, 1978. Following intensive research, investigation and surveillance, Gacy was arrested by the Des Plaines (Ill.) Police Department on Thursday, Dec. 21, 1978. After being charged with and serving time for 33 murders, Gacy was executed in 1994 by lethal injection. Today, Monday, Nov. 23, 1998, technicians began preliminary work on a possible excavation at an apartment building on Chicago's Northwest Side in search of as many as four more possible victims of the mass murderer. The apartment building at one time, was the home of Gacy's mother, and Gacy had done some construction work there. The information regarding the location was recently released from a retired Chicago police officer who said he had seen Gacy carrying a shovel near the area at about 3 a.m. one day in 1975. The former officer reportedly thought little of the Gacy sighting until three years later, when Gacy was charged with 33 murders. The apartment building is about four miles away from Gacy's house.

(Des Plaines Police Department, Tim Boyle)

A portrait of mass murderer Ted Bundy, responsible for a string of murders in Washington state, Utah, and Florida in the 1970s. He was executed in in Florida on January 24, 1989. His actual victim count remains unknown.

(Bettmann via Getty Images)

Aileen Wuornos is shown in this undated photograph from the Florida Department of Corrections. Wournos was executed by lethal injection October 9, 2002 in Florida for murdering six men when she was a prostitute.

(Photo by Florida DOC/Getty Images)

Admitted mass-slayer Charles Starkweather is shown entering court for the second day of his trial for murder. Starkweather admitted killing 11 people and was executed in Nebraska on June 25, 1959. 

(Bettmann via Getty Images)

Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh is shown being escorted from the Noble County Courthouse as he is transported to Oklahoma City for arraignment in this April 22, 1995 file photo. On June 11, 2001, McVeigh was executed after being sentenced to death for the bombing of a federal building in Oklahoma City, a crime that took 168 lives and shook a complacent America to the core.

(Jim Bourg / Reuters)

Gary Gilmore, responsible for the shooting deaths of two men, was executed in Utah on January 17, 1977.

(Bettmann via Getty Images)

Media witnesses to the firing squad execution of John Albert Taylor examine the chair in which Taylor sat as he was shot to death at 12:03 a.m. Mountain time January 26 at the Unita State Penitentiary in Utah. The execution of Taylor was the first by firing squad in the United States since the 1977 execution of Gary Gilmore in Utah.

(POOL New / Reuters)

Stanley 'Tookie Williams' was responsible for several murders and other crimes and was executed in California on December 13, 2005. Williams helped found the Crips gang, but was later nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize for his anti-gang efforts. He authored such books as 'Life in Prison,' encouraging kids to stay out of gangs, and his memoir 'Blue Rage, Black Redemption'.'

(Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

Teresa Lewis, convicted of murdering her husband and stepson, was executed in Virginia on September 23, 2010. She was the first woman executed in the state in nearly 100 years.

(REUTERS/Virginia Department of Corrections/Handout)

William Bonin (left), a 33-year-old truck driver and registered sex offender, was accused of the 'torture' murders of at least 13 and possibly 21 young males, suspected victims of the so called 'Freeway Killer. He was executed in California on February 23, 1996.

The Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department also said Vernon Butts (right) was an accomplice in at least six of the 21 murders.

(Bettmann via Getty Images)

Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, responsible for Boston Marathon bombing, was sentenced to death on May 15, 2015.

(Photo by VCG Wilson/Corbis via Getty Images)

Major Nidal Malik Hasan, the U.S. Army psychiatrist charged in a mass shooting at the U.S. Army post in Fort Hood, Texas, was sentenced to death on August 28, 2013.

(Ho New / Reuters)

Joseph E. Duncan III, a convicted murderer and sex offender, was sentenced to death on August 27, 2008.

 (Photo provided by Kootenai County Sheriff's Department via Getty Images)

Coy Wesbrook was executed in 2016. He fatally shot five people in 1997 with a hunting rifle in a killing spree launched when he found his ex-wife having sex with other men.

(REUTERS/Texas Department of Criminal Justice/Handout via Reuters)

Dylann Roof, the man convicted of murdering nine worshippers at a historic black church in Charleston was condemned to death by a federal jury on January 10, 2017.

(REUTERS/Charleston County Sheriff's Office/Handout)

Death row inmate Ricky Gray is shown in this undated photo released in Washington, DC, U.S. in 2016. Virginia Department of Corrections/Handout via REUTERS ATTENTION EDITORS - THIS IMAGE WAS PROVIDED BY A THIRD PARTY. EDITORIAL USE ONLY.
Christopher Wilkins, 48, Texas death row inmate convicted of killing two people in a revenge plot after one had tricked him in a $20 drug deal, is shown in this undated photo in Huntsville, Texas, U.S.. Courtesy Texas Department of Criminal Justice/Handout via REUTERS ATTENTION EDITORS - THIS IMAGE WAS PROVIDED BY A THIRD PARTY. EDITORIAL USE ONLY.

Deathrow inmate Mark Asay is pictured in this undated handout photo obtained by Reuters August 14, 2017.

He was executed by a lethal injection that included a drug never before used in a U.S. execution, state officials said.

(Florida Department of Corrections/Handout via REUTERS)

Vernon Madison, one of Alabama's longest-serving death row inmates, pictured in this handout photo, to is set to be executed at William C. Holman Correctional Facility in Atmore, Alabama, United States on May 12, 2016 even as the U.S. Supreme Court has ordered a review into whether the state's current sentencing scheme is constitutional. 

(Alabama Department of Corrections/Handout via REUTERS)


Since many mostly European drugmakers began banning sales of their products for use in executions about five years ago over ethical concerns, U.S. states have often turned to lightly regulated compounding pharmacies, which can mix chemicals.

That has resulted in a string of lawsuits challenging secrecy in procurement and the quality of the mixes provided. Middlemen who flout Pfizer's ban could face sanctions.

"Now a distributor who violates Pfizer's policies can face contractual liability and termination of its ability to sell any of Pfizer's medicines," said Robert Dunham, executive director of the nonprofit Death Penalty Information Center, which monitors capital punishment.

Ohio, which has executed 53 inmates since the U.S. Supreme Court reinstated the death penalty in 1976, said last year it was delaying all executions until at least 2017 due to trouble obtaining the necessary drugs.

The state's problems worsened with Pfizer's decision because drugs on Ohio's protocol were on the company's list.


The chemicals banned for sale by Pfizer include the sedative midazolam, which has been used to render a prisoner unconscious, as well as pancuronium bromide, which can be used as a paralytic agent that halts breathing, and potassium chloride, which can cause cardiac arrest.

Thirty-one U.S. states have the death penalty. But only six have an established one-drug protocol, including Texas, Georgia and Missouri, while two others where executions are on hold have plans to use a single drug for executions, according to the Death Penalty Information Center.

The single drug most often used is pentobarbital, which is not made by Pfizer.

Texas, which has executed 537 prisoners since 1976, more than any other state, said it should be able to obtain the chemicals it needs.

"It's not anticipated that Pfizer's decision will have an impact on the agency's current ability to carry out executions," said Jason Clark, a spokesman for the Texas Department of Criminal Justice.

Many of the states that rely on compounding pharmacies have laws banning the release of the pharmacies' names, which they say is needed as a security precaution.

But Dale Baich, an attorney for death row inmates, rejected that. "The purpose of the secrecy is to keep companies in the dark about the misuse of their products," Baich said.

States have also looked overseas. Last year the U.S. Food and Drug Administration impounded a shipment of the execution drug sodium thiopental, ordered by Texas and Arizona from India, saying its import was banned and it has no legal use in the United States.


The number of U.S. executions has been on the decline for years, falling to 28 in 2015, the lowest in more than two decades, and well off a peak of 98 in 1999, according to the Death Penalty Information Center.

"They (Pfizer) have caved in to pressure from the anti-death penalty side," said Kent Scheidegger, legal director of the Criminal Justice Legal Foundation, a victims' rights organization that supports the death penalty.

Last year, only six U.S. states conducted executions. Among those, Florida and Oklahoma currently have a moratorium on executions in place due to legal battles.

One of the drugs on the Pfizer list, midazolam, was at the center of a U.S. Supreme Court decision last year where the court by a 5-4 margin upheld its use in Oklahoma.

The drug was used in troubled executions in Arizona and Oklahoma where death row inmates were seen twisting on gurneys for several minutes. It has also been employed in executions in Florida, Ohio, and Alabama.

The option for several states has been to consider using the single drug method like Texas, or explore alternatives such as bringing back firing squads, gas chambers and electric chairs.

"Lethal injection fails miserably," said Robert Blecker, a criminal law professor at New York Law School who advocates the death penalty for the worst of the worst.

"I hope the Pfizer decision moves states to choose a more honest method to kill those who deserve to die." (Reporting by Jon Herskovitz in Austin, Texas and Fiona Ortiz in Chicago; Writing by Jon Herskovitz; Editing by Cynthia Osterman)

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