Death Penalty Drugs FDA-Approved, but Not for Executions

Jul 24, 2014 at 3:26 PM ET

On Wednesday, Arizona became the latest state to botch an execution. Joseph R. Wood III, who was convicted in 1989 of murdering his girlfriend and his father, received an intravenous drug cocktail designed to kill him in 10 to 15 minutes. Instead, it was nearly two hours before Wood expired at the Arizona State Prison Complex-Florence, during which time witnesses say he continually gasped.

State officials used a cocktail that included two drugs: midazolam, a short-acting sedative that works as a kind of anesthetic, and hydromorphone, a heart-stopping painkiller. Both drugs are FDA-approved, but not for the purposes of killing a human being.

“The FDA does not approve drugs for this use,” Erica V. Jefferson, an FDA spokesperson, tells Vocativ. “The states oversee this practice.”

On Saturday, a federal appeals court stayed the execution of Wood, whose lawyers had filed a suit forcing Arizona to name the manufacturers of the drugs used in the execution. Such requests have recently become common, as sources for traditional execution drugs, like the more powerful barbiturate sodium thiopental, have dried up. (The drug’s American manufacturer stopped producing thiopental in 2011, while companies in Europe don’t want to supply the drug to be used in executions.) But in every instance, the courts ultimately confirmed the right to secrecy, substantiating the argument that revealing the names of manufacturers would open them up to retribution. The U.S. Supreme Court overturned the stay of execution on Tuesday.

“There’s not a scintilla of evidence that manufacturers faced violence or harm,” says Brian Stull, senior staff attorney with the ACLU Capital Punishment Project. “Sure, they may have gotten bad publicity, but it was their decision to get involved in this.”

In January, Dennis McGuire was executed in Ohio with the same two drugs that were used to kill Wood. The results were not much better: The procedure was prolonged, and McGuire was also said to have gasped. Yet the source of these two drugs is no closer to being revealed.

“There is no oversight,” Stull says. “It’s an unregulated area. We want to know who these companies are so we can look at their track record. Are they reliable makers of the drug? Have they had problems before? Who knows?”