Despite evidence of agonising deaths caused, and in possible violation of the constitutional ban on cruel and unusual punishment, numerous prisons in the United States have continued to use an untested drug, pentobarbital, in their lethal injection cocktail for executions.

Most recently the state of Georgia used the animal euthanasia barbiturate to put to death Roy Blankenship (55) who, according to leading U.S. anaesthesiologist David Waisel, “was inadequately anesthetized and was conscious for approximately the first three minutes of the execution and that he suffered greatly.”

Dr. Waisel in particular cited eyewitness accounts stating that Mr. Blankenship’s eyes “were open throughout,” and he added that that should not have occurred after the injection of the anaesthetic component of the lethal injection.

Mr. Blankenship, who was executed on June 23, was the first inmate in Georgia who was killed with pentobarbital, also known as Nembutal. Many U.S. states have switched to the drug, commonly used to put to dogs, after the drug earlier used, sodium thiopental, became scarce in the country.

The supply of sodium thiopental dried up after the sole company producing it, Hospira, announced last year that it would halt production owing to raw materials concerns. Following this development numerous correctional facilities attempted to obtain sodium thiopental from other countries such as India and the United Kingdom.

However since none of the imported sodium thiopental has been approved by the U.S. Food and Drug administration, the Drug Enforcement Agency seized some the UK-made drug from prisons in Kentucky and Tennessee earlier this year.

Yet in January an Indian generic drug company, Kayem Pharma of Mumbai, however managed to export enough sodium thiopental to kill 166 men, to the Nebraska Department of Corrections. South Dakota is also believed to possess the Indian-made drug and it is unclear whether these supplies may also be seized by federal authorities.

With such concerns mounting, however, the list of states turning to pentobarbital, which has been approved by the FDA – though not for use in executions – is growing daily. This trend has intensified despite experts such as Dr. Waisel warning that “the use of pentobarbital as an agent to induce anaesthesia has no clinical history... [and] puts the inmate at risk for serious undue pain and suffering.”

Dr. Waisel’s words would appear to now be grimly prophetic as accounts of botched executions are beginning to trickle in ever more rapidly. In Alabama the execution of Eddie Duval Powell on June 16 “show that his behaviour during the process was similar to that of Mr Blankenship, including the jerking of the head and expressions of apparent surprise and discomfort,” according to a statement by Reprieve, a UK-based anti-death penalty campaign group.

Media eyewitness accounts of Mr. Powell’s death said that “Seemingly confused and startled, he jerked his head to one side and began breathing heavily, his chest rose and contracted. The execution cocktail drugs had begun to be administered.”

Commenting on the use of pentobarbital in U.S. executions Reprieve investigator Maya Foa said, “The new drug protocol was rushed through against the advice of medical professionals, and in many States, against the law. The growing evidence that the protocol doesn’t work, and that prisoners are experiencing extraordinary pain and suffering as a result, makes one seriously wonder about the... justice of the U.S. capital punishment system.”

In the state of Texas, which executes more prisoners than any other U.S. state, the question of cruel and unusual punishment from the use of pentobarbital was compounded by the fact the drug was recently administered to two inmates who were, according to experts “mentally deficient.”

Milton Mathis (32) was said to have an IQ of 62, and Gayland Bradford (42) an IQ of 68, yet Mr. Mathis was executed on June 21 and Mr. Bradford on June 1.

After the Danish company producing pentobarbital for the U.S., Lundbeck, came under enormous pressure from campaign groups and investors to stop allowing its products to be used in executions, it said that it would look into how it could achieve that. However it is yet to commit to a course of action to prevent its pentobarbital from reaching U.S. executioners.

More In: International | News