Death Row Inmate Executed With Animal Sedative: Was It Wrong?

Linda Sharps

In 2011, John David Duty was serving three life sentences in Oklahoma for rape, robbery, and shooting with intent to kill from a 1978 conviction when he used shoe laces to strangle his 22-year-old cellmate, Curtis Wise. Duty was convicted and sentenced to die for the crime of murdering Wise, and on Thursday, he was put to death.

While capital punishment has always been controversial, this particular case has drawn attention because of the lethal injection that was used. Sodium thiopental is usually used as the sedative in the three-drug execution cocktail, but there is currently a nationwide shortage of this manufactured drug.

Duty was executed on Thursday evening using a replacement drug: pentobarbital, which is an animal sedative. He was declared dead at 6:18 p.m. local time.

Oklahoma Department of Corrections spokesman Jerry Massie was quoted as saying in reports that the state had received a dose of sodium thiopental in November, but could not acquire more. Hospira, the only U.S. firm that makes sodium thiopental, says fresh stocks of the drug will be not ready until early 2011. "We are working to get it back onto the market for our customers as soon as possible," the company said.
A sedative is the first step in Oklahoma's lethal injection protocol. It is followed by vecuronium bromide, a drug that causes paralysis and stops breathing. The third drug, potassium chloride, stops the heart.

Duty's attorneys argued that substituting pentobarbital for sodium thiopental was risky and unsafe. Their claim was that use of the drug could render convicts paralyzed while leaving them conscious.

However, an Oklahoma judge disagreed and last month approved its use in place of sodium thiopental.

I'm not sure what to think about this decision. On the one hand, if we generally accept the idea of capital punishment, I'm not sure it makes sense to split hairs over how it's carried out. On the other hand, I don't know why they couldn't have waited a couple more months to procure the necessary drug. John David Duty has now become the first American to be executed by pentobarbital.

On the OTHER other hand, pentobarbital is clearly believed to be painless—it's used not only for veterinary euthanasia, but also in Oregon for physician-assisted suicide.

What do you think? Should Oklahoma have waited to carry out the execution until they had the sodium thiopental?

Image via Oklahoma Department of Corrections

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