Cook: The death penalty drug addiction

Cook: The death penalty drug addiction

October 29th, 2013 by David Cook in Opinion Columns

David Cook

David Cook

Photo by Ashlee Culverhouse /Times Free Press.

After nearly five years of zero executions, Tennessee has resumed its death penalty system, announcing plans to execute one man in January and another in April.

Like most states, Tennessee uses lethal injection as its primary method of execution. A prisoner is led into the execution chamber before a small group of witnesses. He or she is then strapped down by restraints to a gurney while an IV is started in one arm, and then the other, in case of malfunction in the first.

Then, after giving the prisoner a chance to speak his or her final words, officials inject a three-drug cocktail into the prisoner's arm.

The first drug -- sodium thiopental -- is a sedative-anesthetic that makes the prisoner unconscious.

The second -- pancuronium bromide -- paralyzes the lungs and diaphragm.

The third -- potassium chloride -- causes cardiac arrest.

"And rapid death," reads a 2007 Tennessee Department of Correction document.

Yet when Tennessee plans to execute Billy Ray Irick, prison officials will use only one drug: pentobarbital. It's an anesthetic, used commonly by veterinarians to euthanize animals. This January, officials will inject Irick with enough pentobarbital to kill him.

This shift from a three-drug, lethal blend to the single use of pentobarbital is critical, reflecting two telling issues.

First: the lengths our state will go to kill its own citizens.

And second: that Tennessee's death penalty system may be coming to an end.

To understand why, let's rewind to 2011, when the drug manufacturer Hospira said it would no longer produce sodium thiopental, the first of the three-drug cocktail.

Hospira was the American manufacturer of the drug; its announcement created an immediate drug shortage, as officials in death penalty states began scrambling to maintain their supplies.

Somehow, someway, Tennessee officials got their hands on vials of the drug; soon after, the federal government seized their supply (as it did Georgia's) over concerns it was illegally purchased from overseas companies. The Associated Press reported Tennessee bought the drug from a British supplier, yet the state claimed its supply was purchased domestically. Documents about the purchase have been redacted, according to the Tennessean.

This was the first crack in the system. Here's the second:

In 2011, the Denmark-based corporation that produces pentobarbital announced it would stop selling it to American prisons. This is consistent with European Union policy, and, once again, sent prison officials into a free fall, scrambling for supplies.

Some states made plans to obtain pentobarbital from compounding pharmacies, which have been under recent scrutiny lately. Medicines produced from compounding pharmacies -- which take mass-produced drugs and tailor them for individual patients -- are not regulated by the Food and Drug Administration, and while often safe and effective, were at the heart of a recent meningitis outbreak.

So last week, when Tennessee announced it would use pentobarbital to execute Irick in January, one very large question emerged:

Where are you getting the drug?

Turns out, the state doesn't have to answer that.

This past spring, the governor signed into law a bill that keeps all of that secret. In the past, laws protected the identity of anyone involved in the death penalty process. This new law was amended to add "entities."

In other words: Corporations. Companies. Pharmacies.

"Entities ... directly involved in the process of executing a sentence of death are treated as confidential and are not open to public inspection," reads the law.

Rep. Gerald McCormick, the House majority leader from Chattanooga, was one of its primary sponsors.

As of now, Billy Ray Irick has 79 days to live.

Yet our state's death penalty system is beginning to fall apart.

Drugs are in short supply, or are being produced in questionable ways behind a veil of anti-democratic secrecy. The use of pentobarbital as the sole drug of execution brings up a host of legal questions about its effectiveness and constitutionality: will its use be deemed cruel and unusual punishment?

The clutching and grabbing by our executioners for their drugs reveals the drastic reaching of the state. It's like an addiction: they'll do anything to keep this system going.

After all, the state could always go back to the electric chair. Or public hanging.

If pentobarbital runs dry, there's always rope.

Contact David Cook at or 423-757-6329. Follow him on Facebook and Twitter at DavidCookTFP.