Virginia to carry out experimental execution with new drug today, Florida set to follow suit

August 18, 2011

Today Virginia is set to execute for the first time using an untested new lethal injection drug, in a move which could soon be followed by Florida unless the state’s Supreme Court overturns the ruling of a lower court. Jerry Jackson is expected to be executed in Greensville, VA this evening using pentobarbital, which recently replaced the more widely used anaesthetic sodium thiopental. The new drug is untested for the purposes of anaesthesia in humans, and until recently was best known for its use in putting down animals. Meanwhile, a decision is expected imminently from the Florida Supreme Court on the state’s plan to use the same drug to execute Manuel Valle – a Cuban with close ties to Spain – despite serious concerns that doing so could result in extreme pain and suffering for the prisoner. Oral arguments on the lethal injection issue had been scheduled to be heard next week, but were yesterday cancelled by the Supreme Court. The state of Georgia’s first execution using pentobarbital was ‘clearly botched’ according to Harvard anaesthesiologist Dr David Waisel, who highlighted reports that the eyes of the prisoner, Roy Willard Blankenship, remained open throughout the process. The execution went so badly that a Georgia judge took the unprecedented step of ordering a subsequent lethal injection to be videotaped to provide evidence on whether it constituted ‘cruel and unusual punishment’. Despite this, a number of other states are planning to push ahead with their own ‘experimental’ execution programmes, using the same drug. The Florida circuit court, in a move that is being appealed by Mr Valle’s lawyers, even rejected eyewitness evidence of the Georgia execution submitted by those who had been present, hearing only the version of events provided by State’s witnesses and Georgia corrections officials. The circuit court also excused Florida Department of Corrections officials from having to attend, although they had been called by Mr Valle’s lawyers. Earlier this week, Montana became the latest state to announce that it was making the switch to pentobarbital. Reprieve investigator Katherine Bekesi said: “We are starting to see an epidemic of states carrying out experimental executions using untested drugs. Florida in particular already has a grim history of botched executions – it is crucial that they think again before subjecting Manuel Valle to what could be an excruciatingly painful death.” ENDS Notes to editors: 1. For more information please contact Reprieve’s Press Office: info@reprieve.org.uk 2. 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. 3. Further information on Manuel Valle’s appeal to the Florida Supreme Court can be found here: http://www.reprieve.org.uk/press/2011_08_14_manuel_valle_appeal/4. An eyewitness from the Associated Press has described the “thrashing, jerking death of Roy Willard Blankenship” using pentobarbital, 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. Despite these accounts of a “clearly botched” execution, “John Harper, an employee of the Georgia Department of Corrections, described the June 23 execution in that state of Roy Blankenship […] as relatively non-eventful.” – see ‘Lethal injection drug hearing to continue next week’, Miami Herald, 28 July 2011 5. Montana State Prison announced on Monday that it would be changing its execution protocol to allow the use of pentobarbital6. Legal action charity Reprieve’s EC Project identifies and assists prisoners with European connections who are facing the death penalty in the USA.