During the late-13th-century siege of Valencia, Spain, legend relates, Doña Jimena Díaz strapped the corpse of her husband—the legendary warrior El Cid—to his horse to lead his disheartened troops. Perhaps not since that incident has a group of fighters bound itself so tightly to a cadaver as the Trump-era conservative legal movement, which has clasped capital punishment to its bosom while the nation, unevenly but unmistakably, turns away from it in disgust.
Yesterday, Attorney General William Barr announced that five executions will be carried out by the federal Bureau of Prisons from December 9 to January 15. The timetable is breathtakingly ambitious: The federal government has carried out a grand total of three executions since Congress reinstated the death penalty, in 1988, and it has not executed anyone since 2003. Executions may take place at some point, but it is likely the nation will be spared Barr’s macabre holiday celebration this year. There are three major reasons for this.
First, Barr’s new addendum to the Bureau of Prisons execution protocol, filed with the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia, specifies that pentobarbital sodium will be the sole lethal-injection drug. Pentobarbital is quite lethal—but it is also in short supply. The largest manufacturer, Lundbeck, banned the sale of the drug for execution purposes eight years ago. Texas has reportedly amassed 27 lethal doses (including some that have expired and thus may not work as desired). Like a number of death-penalty states, Texas keeps its sources secret, but last year, the BuzzFeed News reporter Chris McDaniel discovered that at least some of the state’s supply had been bought from a business called Greenpark Compounding Pharmacy, a Houston provider with an abysmal safety record. State officials placed Greenpark on probation in 2016, and last year the Food and Drug Administration issued a warning letter notifying Greenpark that its products “may have become contaminated with filth or rendered injurious to health.”