If we can save lives, shouldn’t we always? And if we can do that now rather than wait to kill someone later, why wouldn’t we do that? Yet that is precisely what might be happening across the country, as states that have retained the death penalty are likely holding on to drugs for lethal injections that can be used to sedate and immobilize people who must be put on ventilators for serious cases of COVID-19.
Without drugs like the sedative midazolam, the paralytic vecuronium and the opioid fentanyl, putting someone on a ventilator would be “torture,” according to medical experts who have studied the cocktail of substances used for lethal injections. Earlier in April, a group of public health experts, doctors from intensive care units and pharmacists sent a letter to corrections departments asking to them to release any of these drugs they may have on store for executions. They note that states’ stockpiles could save hundreds of lives amidst a 73 percent surge in demand for those drugs in March alone.
Yet states are not clamoring to help. For one, there is great secrecy around which states have these drugs. Since 2011, 13 states have passed laws concealing information about executions, including the methods, but 19 states have execution protocols that call for sedatives and paralytics. Of the states that have the death penalty, it is unclear how much they may be saving for when they can resume executions, as most refused to respond to the letter. Tennessee, Florida and Nevada have confirmed they have these drugs and Florida alone is said to have enough to intubate about 100 patients. No state to date has said it will provide the drugs to hospitals.
This seems like a no-brainer, but states may be hesitant as they worry about being able to later acquire their killing cocktails. Companies are increasingly refusing to sell them when they know they are being used to execute death sentences. In 2018, several pharmaceutical companies sued the state of Nevada, arguing that it obtained its lethal injection chemicals illegally, and a total of 15 states signed onto a brief calling it “guerilla warfare” by anti-death penalty activists. It was dismissed but Nevada had to agree to return the chemicals to the companies. This included Florida, Oklahoma and Texas, all among the top killing states.
The death penalty is always heartless and immoral, I believe. But to sit on a stockpile of drugs that could save lives now is unimaginable. No person sitting on death row can kill anyone right now. The killer here is the state prioritizing death over the ethical and intelligent choice.
Laura Finley, Ph.D., syndicated by PeaceVoice, teaches in the Barry University Department of Sociology & Criminology.