Experimental execution drug set to be used for first time in three US states

July 28, 2011

 Three more death penalty states are preparing to adopt a new lethal injection drug this summer, despite evidence that it has caused botched executions and intense suffering to prisoners across the USA.

Delaware plans to use the untested barbiturate pentobarbital – in place of the anaesthetic sodium thiopental, which has been hit by domestic shortages – for the first time this Friday [July 29] in the execution of Robert Jackson. Virginia will use the same drug in the execution of Jerry Jackson on August 18.

Florida had planned to execute Manuel Valle, a Cuban with close ties to Spain, using pentobarbital on August 2, but the State Supreme Court issued a stay until September due to concerns over whether use of the drug could lead to unnecessary pain and suffering.

The concerns stem from reports of a number of botched executions using pentobarbital, notably that of Roy Willard Blankenship in Georgia earlier this year, who suffered a “thrashing, jerking death,” during which his eyes never closed. Harvard anaesthesiologist Dr David Waisel testified in a sworn affidavit that Mr Blankenship must have “suffered greatly” during the process.

As a result, a recent execution in Georgia using pentobarbital has been videotaped on the orders of a judge, to assess whether it violates the Constitutional ban on “cruel and unusual punishment”. This lends the process to an even greater appearance of human experimentation.

Reprieve investigator Kat Bekesi said: “It seems incredible that the ‘thrashing’ deaths of prisoners and the opinion of medical experts are not enough to persuade states that they should not be trying out experimental drugs in their execution chambers. The stay of execution in Florida is a small step in the right direction, but in the longer term, state authorities will need to think hard about whether they want yet another badly botched execution on their conscience.”


Notes to editors

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

2. Reprieve-assisted prisoner Manuel Valle is a Cuban national with Spanish links, who has now been on death row for 33 years. He has been denied proper clemency proceedings, and (similarly to the recent case of Humberto Leal in Texas) did not receive the consular assistance to which he was entitled. His execution has been stayed until September 1st to allow a full hearing on the matter to take place. Reprieve is assisting Mr Valle as part of our EC project.

3. 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