Written By: Billy Sinclair
Texas has joined the growing trend of death penalty states to use one drug, pentobarbital, to put down its condemned inmate. Earlier this month Texas corrections officials announced the State would begin carrying out one-drug executions. They didn’t waste any time. Eight days later they put to death Yokaman Hearn who had been convicted of the 1998 killing of a 23-year-old Dallas stock broker.
The one drug trend was triggered by a worldwide shortage of thiopental used in the three-drug cocktail which was aided along by pancuronium bromide (a muscle paralyzing drug) and potassium chloride (a heart-stopping drug). The thiopental shortage came about because of international pressure on its American and European manufacturers of the drug to cease its production. So states like Ohio, Oklahoma (where the original three drug cocktail was invented), Georgia and Virginia announced their attention to switch to the one powerful dose of pentobarbital to carrying their executions.
According to Associated Press reporter Michael Graczyk, who has witnessed more than 300 lethal injection executions, it took 12 to 12 minutes to carry out three-drug executions in Texas. But Graczyk told PBS that it took 25 minutes to carry out the Hearn execution. Both procedures generally result in the inmate falling asleep almost immediately after the sedative drug (either thiopental or pentobarbital) is administered followed by snoring until it becomes less pronounced and death ensues. The attending physician will wait a few minutes before entering the death chamber and pronounce the inmate dead.
Recently I watched the HBO documentary “One Nation Under Dog” which featured the euthanasia of a dog. The viewer did not actually witness the dog being put down in a room adjacent to the cameras. But the viewer could hear the dog’s labored breathing until it stopped. Pentobarbital is the drug of choice used by veterinarians to put down animals. So one can adduce that the drug’s effect on a dog are pretty much the same on humans, except that the dog dies much quicker even though administered a considerably smaller amount (500 mg).
Amount, is thus, probably explains why it took twice as long to kill Hearn with pentobarbital than it did to kill the previous 482 condemned inmates put to death in Texas with the three-drug cocktail. Texas officials used only 5 grams of the drug to put down Hearn while assisted suicide clinics in Sweden use 15 grams of the drug. Five grams will obviously produce death but not nearly as fast as 15 grams. 5 grams is the same amount of thiopental used in the previous three-drug cocktail, but each of the other two drugs (pancuronium and potassium chloride) were administered in 100 mg. each. The five grams of thiopental (a first cousin to pentobarbital) was not intended to cause death. Potassium chloride was the real killed because it literally suffocated the heart while pancuronium paralyzed the inmate to keep him from flopping around on the gurney while the potassium did its job.
So why not use a larger dose of pentobarbital to execute people? Again, not enough supply to meet demand. Texas is running out of pentobarbital. It has enough to carry out 23 more 5-gram executions. And with pressure mounting on manufacturers of the drug to cease its production, states are trying to get more out of less. In effect, give the condemned inmate just enough to put him in a deep sleep knowing that it will produce death over a period of the next 15 to 20 minutes.
What will death penalty states, especially Texas, use to kill of its condemned inmates once pentobarbital inevitably dries up?
Don’t know, folks. What I do know is that they will continue to perpetuate the myth that death by lethal injection is painless.