States are stockpiling lethal injection drugs that could be used to save lives

Ed Pilkington in New York
Protesters gather outside the state Capitol building on Friday in Little Rock, Arkansas. Photograph: Kelly P Kissel/AP

Death penalty states, including Arkansas which will carry out a double execution on Thursday should the courts give the go-ahead as part of an unprecedented week-long killing spree, are stockpiling vital drugs for lethal injections that could be used in tens of thousands of potentially life-saving medical operations, a new study has found.

The study looks at just four of America’s 31 states that still adhere to capital punishment and finds that they are hoarding sufficient stashes of medicines to treat 11,257 patients in surgeries and other possibly life-or-death procedures, for executions. Were the findings from Arkansas, Arizona, Mississippi and Virginia extrapolated to the rest of the country, the number of operations that could be supported by the drugs would reach into the tens of thousands.

Several of the medicines are officially in short supply, with hospitals finding it increasingly difficult to lay their hands on them. As a result, doctors are making compromises in their care choices that are only being intensified by US prisons redirecting the chemicals towards the death chamber.

“The public must realize that when states take these vital drugs and repurpose them as poison and use them to kill, there are serious consequences,” said Dr Joel Zivot, an anesthesiologist at Emory University hospital in Atlanta, Georgia. “People don’t appreciate that these drugs might one day be needed for their own medical treatment.”

One of the four states reviewed by the study, Arkansas, has embarked on a rapid-fire schedule of executions this month that has been decried as a “conveyor-belt of death”. The Republican governor, Asa Hutchinson, initially planned eight killings in 11 days, but after local and federal courts imposed stays in three of the cases the state now intends to kill five inmates in a single week.

According to the study overseen by Zivot, Arkansas has stockpiled sufficient supplies of the three drugs to treat 1,800 patients in potentially life-saving operations. Instead, it is determined to redirect them to putting at least five men to death.

On Thursday, two prisoners, Ledell Lee and Stacey Johnson, are scheduled to die at 7pm and 8.15pm respectively, though both executions are currently on hold at the behest of courts. The state plans to follow up next Monday by killing Marcel Williams and Jack Jones, and on 27 April it will be the turn of Kenneth Williams.

An army of lawyers deployed by the Arkansas attorney general’s office is locked in an epic struggle with public defenders representing the five remaining condemned men in multiple ongoing court proceedings over whether or not they should die. On Wednesday, the state supreme court ruled to halt Johnson’s execution, saying that he should have a chance to prove his innocence with more DNA testing. Further legal challenges are ongoing, and the tussle is almost certain to end later on Thursday at the door of the US supreme court, which was similarly engaged on Monday night when it declined to allow the execution of Don Davis to go ahead.

The death row inmates facing the gurney in Arkansas have already petitioned the US supreme court, calling on the nation’s highest judicial panel on Wednesday to reinstate an earlier federal court ruling that put their executions on hold on grounds that they could be exposed to cruel and unusual punishment. That ruling was later overturned by the eighth circuit court of appeals.

The triple cocktail deployed by Arkansas in its death protocol involves: midazolam, a sedative which is supposed to render the prisoner unconscious; vecuronium bromide that paralyses his muscles and potassium chloride that stops his heart. Each of the drugs have critical uses in surgical settings: midazolam relaxes patients before operations; vecuronium is used to keep air passages open during surgery and potassium chloride treats a common and potentially life-threatening form of electrolyte imbalance.

All three of the drugs are listed by the World Health Organisation as essential to meeting the minimum needs of any basic healthcare system. Two of them – vecuronium and potassium chloride – have also been officially classified by the pharmacist body ASHP as among those vital medicines that have fallen into short supply, while midazolam until recently was also hard to come by.

Maya Foa, the director of the human rights group Reprieve that has led the campaign to stop life-saving drugs reaching US death chambers, said: “It is deeply perverse that departments of corrections across the US are sitting on shortage medicines that could be used to save hundreds of patients’ lives.

“As if this hoarding wasn’t dangerous enough, Arkansas has further undermined public health by introducing an ‘execution secrecy’ law which creates serious risks of drug diversion, counterfeiting, and contamination.”

One of the other states in the study, Virginia, has sufficient stocks of drugs used in its lethal injection protocol to treat almost 5,000 patients in critical operations. Next week, the state is scheduled to kill Ivan Teleguz, a death row inmate whose lawyers insist is innocent.

As a further twist in Arkansas’s use of medicines to kill, the US healthcare giant McKesson is suing the state again to try and prevent it from using the vials of vecuronium that it supplied to the department of corrections. The company, one of the largest distributors of medicines in the country, claims in the complaint that state officials effectively lied to it in order to procure the batches, pretending that they were going to be used to restock the prison’s hospital wing.

On Wednesday night, a judge from Pulaski County granted McKesson its request for a temporary halt to all the executions. The state’s attorney general, Leslie Rutledge, said she would appeal the decision to the Arkansas supreme court.

“McKesson has shown that the healthcare industry will do what it takes to prevent the grave misuse of medicines in executions,” Reprieve’s Foa said. “Arkansas obtained these drugs from McKesson through a sustained campaign of deception. In its efforts to ‘enforce the law’ Arkansas has ridden roughshod over private companies’ legal agreements and the interests of Arkansas patients, and today’s ruling shows this will not pass unchallenged.”

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