Two botched US executions indicate failure of new drug

June 28, 2011

An untested lethal injection drug may be causing unnecessary pain and suffering to prisoners, according to new evidence from medical experts and eyewitnesses in the USA.

In two recent executions using the barbiturate pentobarbital – which recently replaced sodium thiopental as one of the most widely-used execution drugs in the US, despite the fact that it was not designed to induce surgical anaesthesia and has not been clinically tested for the purpose – eyewitnesses reported that the men being executed jerked their heads during the process, and gave other indications that they were in discomfort or had not been properly anaesthetised. The eyes of one of the men executed, Roy Willard Blankenship, reportedly remained open throughout the process.

According to Harvard medical professor Dr David Waisel, “They clearly botched this execution and Mr. Blankenship clearly suffered.”

The execution of Mr Blankenship on 23 June was the first to be carried out using pentobarbital in Georgia. The other execution, of Eddie Duval Powell in Alabama on 16 June, was the second to be carried out by the state using the same drug. Media reports of the two carry striking similarities:

    Powell: “his eyes opened again and he raised his head and neck off the gurney. Seemingly confused and startled, he jerked his head to one side and began breathing heavily, his chest rose and contracted. The execution cocktail drugs had begun to be administered.” Blankenship: “As the injection began, he jerked his head toward his left arm and made a startled face while blinking rapidly. He soon lurched to his right arm, lunging with his mouth agape twice. He then held his head up, and his chin smacked as he mouthed words that were inaudible to observers […] His eyes never closed.”

Reprieve investigator Maya Foa said:

“The common thread linking these alarming and disturbing reports is the use of the new execution drug, pentobarbital.

“The new drug protocol was rushed through against the advice of medical professionals, and in many States, against the law. The growing evidence that the protocol doesn’t work, and that prisoners are experiencing extraordinary pain and suffering as a result, makes one seriously wonder about the so-called justice of the US capital punishment system.”


Notes to editors

1. For further information please contact Donald Campbell in Reprieve’s press office: +44 (0) 20 7427 1082

2. Media eyewitness accounts of the two executions can be found in the following articles:

3. Dr David Waisel’s view that Mr Blankenship’s execution was ‘clearly botched’ can be found here:  ‘Medical experts divided over Georgia execution’, Associated Press, 24 June 2011