Arizona's Death Penalty Fades Away

Drug shortages have left the state unable to perform executions, officials told a federal court Friday.

Arizona Department of Corrections / Reuters

Arizona prison officials told a federal court Friday they could no longer perform executions due to problems obtaining lethal-injection drugs, effectively ending capital punishment in the state for the foreseeable future.

The Arizona Department of Corrections said it amended its execution protocols to omit midazolam and that the state lacked supplies of either sodium thiopental or pentobarbital, according to a filing in a federal district court in Phoenix, Arizona. All three drugs are sedatives used to render inmates unconscious during a lethal injection.

The department’s “lack of the drugs and its current inability to obtain these drugs means that the Department is presently incapable of carrying out an execution,” the filing said. The state’s current supply of midazolam is also scheduled to expire before a lawsuit by five death-row inmates challenging the state’s use of the drug will be completed. Buzzfeed has more:

In January, in the wake of the ruling, Arizona had tried to get approval to move ahead with executions with the use of a supply of midazolam that was due to expire in May, but U.S. District Court Judge Neil Wake denied the states’ request to dismiss the inmates’ challenge — meaning that the midazolam supply would expire before it could be used.

Now, the state is removing one of its four execution protocols that included the use of midazolam, it informed the court on Friday.

Its other three protocols include either the use of pentobarbital or sodium thiopental, and the state told the court on Friday that it has been unable to obtain either drug. (It has attempted to import sodium thiopental from India, but the U.S. Food and Drug Administration detained the shipment when it arrived at the airport in Phoenix.)

Arizona’s lethal-injection problems began during the botched execution of Joseph Wood in July 2014. Witnesses said Wood gasped for air in apparent agony for one hour and 57 minutes before dying, long enough for his lawyers to file a motion to stay the execution.

One of the drugs Arizona used to execute Wood was midazolam, a controversial sedative also used in Oklahoma’s botched execution of Clayton Lockett two months earlier. In 2015, the U.S. Supreme Court narrowly upheld midazolam’s use in lethal injections in Glossip v. Gross.

Despite the ruling, the death penalty is an increasingly unusual practice in the 31 states that permit it by law. Only nine states have carried one or more executions since 2014, with Texas and Missouri accounting for the bulk of them.

Part of the decline stems from the growing scarcity of lethal-injection drugs. Pfizer, for example, announced last month it would tighten controls to prevent states from using its products for executions. Similar efforts throughout the pharmaceutical industry in the U.S. and Europe effectively severed lawful supply lines for state death rows throughout the United States.

But the death penalty is also losing political favor, with polls showing public support at its lowest levels since the Supreme Court revived capital punishment in 1976. On Friday, the Democratic Party's platform committee approved a measure in its national platform calling for the death penalty’s abolition.