US prison to videotape ‘experimental’ execution

July 20, 2011

A judge in Georgia, USA has ordered that an execution scheduled for today [20 July] be videotaped, amid fears of ‘botched’ executions using new drugs, resulting in excruciating pain for the prisoner.

Recently, there have been increasing numbers of reports of prisoners ‘jerking’ or ‘thrashing’ during the execution process, indicating that they have remained conscious and suffered severe pain as a result of new and untested drugs being used.

Yesterday, a judge in Fulton County, GA ordered that the execution of Andrew Grant DeYoung be filmed, after hearing claims from lawyers that the state’s new lethal injection process, using a drug called pentobarbital, may cause needless pain and suffering.

Superior Court Judge Bensonetta Tipton Lane wrote that the move was necessary in order to gather evidence on “whether the method of execution […] violates federal and state constitutional restrictions against inflicting cruel and unusual punishment.”

The move follows a slew of reports of botched executions using pentobarbital, which has replaced the previously-used anaesthetic sodium thiopental across much of the US despite the absence of any effective tests on the consequences of its use in lethal injections – a purpose for which it is not intended. These executions include:

    Roy Willard Blankenship (23 June, Georgia), who jerked, grimaced, and kept his eyes open throughout the procedure. Harvard anaesthesiologist Dr David Waisel wrote in a sworn affidavit that “I can say with certainty that Mr Blankenship was inadequately anesthetized and […] that he suffered greatly.”
    Eddie Powell (16 June, Alabama) who similarly to Blankenship, ‘jerked’ during his execution, breathing heavily and appearing startled.
    Eric King (29 March, Arizona), who had two sedatives present in his blood during his execution according to a toxicology report, when there should only have been one – this apparent experimental behaviour by the Department of Corrections would violate of the state’s execution protocol.

Several executions are scheduled to take place using pentobarbital in the near future – including that of Mark Ströman in Texas today. The German government and several MEPs have written to the Governor to raise concerns about Texas’ use of pentobarbital in Mark’s scheduled execution. Lundbeck, the manufacturer of pentobarbital, has likewise written to the State of Texas to express its concerns.

Tineke Harris, Director of Reprieve’s Death Penalty Team said: “This is a truly chilling development. US states are now effectively experimenting on people using untested execution drugs, and filming them to see how much they suffer.”


Notes to editors

1. For more information please contact Donald Campbell or Katherine O’Shea at Reprieve’s Press Office: / +44 (0) 20 7427 1082 / (0) 7791 755 415 / / +44 (0) 20 7427 1099 / (0) 7931 592 674.

2. Explaining the decision to videotape the execution, Judge Lane wrote that:

“This court is not making a finding that any executions have been ‘botched,’ but is finding that there are many facts relevant to the constitutionality of the state’s execution process that it has refrained from disclosing to those who seek to challenge it […the evidence being sought] is of a type that is likely to be relevant to a determination regarding whether the method of execution […] violates federal and state constitutional restrictions against inflicting cruel and unusual punishment.”

See ‘Judge orders videotaping of scheduled execution’, Atlanta Journal-Constitution, 19/07/2011

3. Legal action charity Reprieve is assisting Mark Ströman, whose case raises crucial issues around the rights of victims and the obligations of the prosecution and the defence in this regard. Mark’s victims do not wish for Mark to be executed and Rais Bhuiyan, who survived being shot in the face by Mark, has sued Texas to ask that Mark’s execution be stayed so that he can avail himself of his rights as a victim under Texas law.

4. Roy Blankenship: An eyewitness from the Associated Press has described the “thrashing, jerking death of Roy Willard Blankenship” during which “his eyes never closed”. The full text of Dr David Waisel’s affidavit on Roy Blankenship’s inadequate anaesthesia can be found on Reprieve’s website

5. Eddie Powell: A media eyewitness report of Eddie Powell’s execution reported that “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”.

6. Eric King: A toxicology report indicated that two different sedatives – sodium thiopental and pentobarbital – were used in the execution of Eric John King in Arizona earlier this year. This would have violated the state’s execution protocol calling for only one sedative to be used as part of a three-drug cocktail, and may have indicated that state officials were ‘experimenting,’ according to lawyers – see AP report.

7. Many US states have started using a new execution drug, pentobarbital, ever since domestic supplies of the previously widespread drug sodium thiopental became scarce. Key dates and developments are listed on Reprieve’s lethal injection drugs timeline.