Unless Marcus Wellons is granted a last-minute stay, this week he will become the first person executed in the United States since Oklahoma inmate Clayton Lockett died of a heart attack after writhing in pain on the execution table when his lethal injection went awry last month.
States like Georgia and Oklahoma, where lethal injections are the only legal method of execution, have been struggling to secure one of the key drugs needed to kill a person.
Citing ethical concerns, overseas manufacturers of pentobarbital have virtually halted all sales of the drug in the United States if it is scheduled to be used for executions, forcing states to turn to untested alternatives that are often produced in secret and with little to no oversight.
In the case of Lockett’s mishandled execution, state officials refused to answer questions about where the drugs that were used had come from. It was to be the first time the state used a new, different cocktail of drugs after struggling to secure a sufficient dose of pentobarbital.
Wellons’s execution Tuesday in Georgia, which is being meted out as punishment for his 1993 conviction of raping and killing a 15-year-old girl, will be shrouded in similar secrecy. For the first time, officials turned to a so-called compounding pharmacy to produce a modified version of pentobarbital for a lethal injection. They could not secure the usual iteration of the drug from Lundbeck, the Danish company that produces the only version of pentobarbital approved for sale in the United States.
Compounding pharmacies operate independently of drug manufacturers, and are legally allowed to tweak the chemical makeup of drugs without having to seek approval from the FDA. As a result, their methodology and efficiency have been called into question by opponents of the death penalty, who argue that death-row inmates have the right to know exactly what they are being injected with. Georgia’s Department of Corrections confirmed to the Associated Press that they had obtained the dose of pentobarbital for Tuesday’s planned execution from one such compound pharmacy.
As the available pool of lethal injection drugs continues to dry up, proponents of the death penalty have grown increasingly willing to find alternatives to executing people instead of curbing the use of capital punishment. Pro-death legislators in states like Missouri, Virginia and Wyoming have recently come out in favor of reintroducing draconian methods of execution, including the electric chair, firing squads, and gas chambers.
Meanwhile, public opinion polls find that the number of people in favor of the death penalty is at its lowest levels in nearly 40 years.