CREDIT: AP Photo/Amber Hunt
In three recent lethal injections gone awry, inmates struggled for as much as two hours before they died. These executions occurred in different states, under different circumstances, but they all used the same drug, the short-acting sedative Midazolam. Doctors don’t know how Midazolam works for executions, since it is typically only used to sedate patients during surgery; the drug is not even considered a “true general anesthesia” because it the patient retains some awareness.
So when lawyers asked Missouri officials under oath whether they were or might ever use Midazolam in the state’s lethal injections, it was significant that they said they would not. “We will not use those drugs,” Department of Corrections director George Lombardi said during a deposition in January. But St. Louis Public Radio reported this week that records show they did use those drugs, in every single execution since November of last year. In fact, the two men who swore under oath that the state would not use the drug signed off on documents authorizing the use of the drug. Not only that; documents suggest that officials administered the Midazolam before the execution warrant was even valid, and before witnesses were taken into the execution viewing room.
These officials would not respond to requests for comment from St. Louis Public Radio. And the revelation raises particular alarm bells. For one thing, Midazolam is among the more controversial lethal injection drugs and could have unpredictable consequences. Anesthesiologist David Waisel called Midazolam “uncharted territory,” saying, “States literally have no idea what they’re doing to these people.” States haven’t agreed on a standard dosage. And they don’t know how much awareness death row inmates retain while they’re being killed.
For another thing, Missouri was among the first states to insist that it could execute people without disclosing the source or any other information about the drug. Lawyers for the death row inmates have argued that this secrecy means they can’t verify whether the state is imposing cruel and unusual punishment in violation of the Eighth Amendment. And Missouri’s seeming misrepresentations amplify that concern.
“There’s a complete lack of transparency here. So I mean the issue we’ve had all along, which is secrecy. continues,” Missouri criminal defense lawyer Cheryl Pilate told ThinkProgress. “And this adds further weight to the notion that what we’re seeing is really a very sanitized stage managed procedure and we don’t know what the prisoner is experiencing.”
As St. Louis Public Radio laments in its report, “We weren’t aware of how far the state’s secrecy extended in Missouri. We knew the state hid the names of those carrying out executions. We knew the state attempted to hide the supplier of its drugs. But we didn’t know the state had tried to hide what drugs it’s using, and how long executions really take.”
“[W]e just don’t know anything,” added Pilate. “We don’t know how this drug is being administered. By whom. Under whose authority. Is it given all at once? Is it oral? Is it IV? What time is it given?”
Lying under oath is one of a number of questionable tactics states are pursuing so they can keep putting people to death, even as international opposition to the death penalty has created shortages of some lethal injection drugs. In Louisiana, state officials reportedly tricked a hospital into providing a painkiller for executions by misleading administrators about what it was for. And some lawmakers have called for bringing back firing squads, gas chambers, and the electric chair.