In a grim irony that marks a new low even for the lethal injection business, drugs that were meant to save lives in one of the world’s poorest countries are set to be used to kill in the world’s richest nation.
The US state of Nebraska is fighting to be allowed to carry out an execution using drugs manufactured in India, which the manufacturer believed were bound for sub-Saharan Africa for legitimate medical use. When this grim event takes place it will be the first execution in Nebraska since 1997, and the first ever in the state by lethal injection. You’d think the Nebraska department of correctional services (NDCS) would be anxious to see all go smoothly. That they’d leave no room for error, no reason to query their new execution procedure. Not so. NDCS’s blundering attempts to procure execution drugs over the past 12 months have drawn criticism from the courts, sanctions by the drugs enforcement agency (DEA), public opprobrium and ridicule from the press. It would be farcical were it not so tragic.
It’s not just the condemned man’s fate that is on the line: the pharmaceutical manufacturer Naari is in despair. The company is named by NDCS as the manufacturer of the drugs intended for the execution of Michael Ryan. This despite the fact that Naari has never had any dealings with NDCS, is vehemently opposed to the use of its drugs in executions, and isn’t even licensed to sell drugs in the US.
Putting his faith in the US justice system, Naari’s CEO wrote to chief justice Heavican of Nebraska supreme court. The drugs were never intended to go to the US, he explained. They were intended for registration in Zambia, where, unlike in the US, there’s legitimate medical need for the drugs. NDCS had acquired Naari’s drugs through a middleman, who had, the company argues, taken them under false pretences, and the drugs should be returned. The justice system refused to listen. In fact, Naari was asked to “please refrain from sending any further communications regarding this matter to Nebraska supreme court given that such ex parte communications are generally improper”.
The US food and drug administration (FDA) has not approved or tested the drugs that will be used in Ryan’s execution. It has not verified the ingredients, has not checked the site of manufacture, has not reviewed the chain of custody, and will not comment on the “identity, safety, effectiveness, purity, or any other characteristics” of the shipment. It’s a shocking abdication of the FDA’s responsibilities, and the consequences could be very grave indeed.
If the drugs don’t work effectively, the execution will be torturous, as the supreme court of America has itself acknowledged: “It is uncontested that, failing a proper dose of sodium thiopental that would render the prisoner unconscious, there is a substantial … risk of suffocation… and pain from the injection.”
Executions make headlines; botched executions, front-page stories. The Indian pharmaceutical industry has only recently recovered from the counterfeit drug scandals that marred its reputation through the 80s and 90s. The last thing it needs is more negative headlines. And why should the Indian pharmaceutical industry be forced to play henchman to the US executioner? On a recent trip to India, the question I was asked most often was why the US can’t just make their own execution drugs. The answer is telling. They can, but they don’t want to. US manufacturers have done the math: profits from execution drug sales are minimal (roughly $100 in total per year); costs to reputations, incalculable. So the US prisons turn to India to exploit an open market and potentially destroy the reputation and livelihood of the companies unfortunate enough to be dragged into the trade.
A great injustice is being done, and the US law enforcement agencies are allowing it to happen. Nebraska’s execution will indeed be a historic moment. It will mark a new low in the US’s blinkered pursuit of capital punishment. A moment we should all look upon with shame.