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States Scramble To Deal With Shortages Of Execution Drugs


Texas is running out of the drug that it uses for lethal injections. It has enough pentobarbital for two more executions, one scheduled for this evening, one for next week. As NPR's Martin Kaste reports, the shortage is a result of pressure from death penalty opponents, both in the U.S. and abroad.

MARTIN KASTE, BYLINE: This isn't the first time Texas has found itself running out of a death penalty drug. Jason Clark is the spokesman for the Texas Department of Criminal Justice.

JASON CLARK: Previously, we had used a three drug cocktail. And we used that from 1982 until 2012. And then it became an issue that we could not secure the first drug.

KASTE: So they replaced it with pentobarbital. But then their supply of the other two drugs in the cocktail dried up. They finally switched to just one drug - a lethal dose of pentobarbital. It's a powerful barbiturate, and enough of it will shut down a person's breathing. But now that that's running out, Clark says Texas is once again looking for alternatives.

CLARK: It's not an issue that's unique to Texas. Department of corrections throughout the United States are facing similar issues. And it becomes an issue because drug companies have placed restrictions, making it more difficult to purchase those type of drugs.

KASTE: European companies especially have come under pressure from activists to stop supplying the drugs to American states. The news last year of botched or drawn-out run lethal injections in Ohio and Oklahoma didn't help matters. The Supreme Court has agreed to review the constitutionality of the lethal injections used in Oklahoma. And last month, Attorney General Eric Holder told the National Press Club that he would like to see states hold off on executions for now.


ERIC HOLDER: From my perspective, I think a moratorium until the Supreme Court made a determination would be appropriate.

KASTE: Holder is a long-standing opponent of the death penalty. Activists are hoping that the drug shortage will continue to slow the pace of executions in the U.S. But some states are acting to keep their options open.

They're approving backup methods. Tennessee OKed the electric chair last year. Oklahoma lawmakers are considering using nitrogen gas. And now in Utah, the legislature is talking firing squads.


PAUL RAY: In a firing squad, an individual - the individual dies anywhere from three to five seconds. It's a quick bleed-out that happens.

KASTE: That's Representative Paul Ray, sponsor of the legislation that just passed which would bring back firing squads if Utah can't get the drugs it needs. It's not an imminent problem there. The next execution is at least two years off, but Ray wants the state to be prepared.


RAY: Now, what I'm hoping is by that time, the United States - we will have found a new drug cocktail that gets approved, and we continue on. That's more than likely hopefully going to happen, but we need to have a backup just in case.

KASTE: But if lethal injection do go away because the drugs can't be had or because the Supreme Court finds them unconstitutional, then the death penalty debate may shift to a new question - whether it's humane to kill a convicted murderer by standing him up in front of five people with rifles. Martin Kaste, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Martin Kaste is a correspondent on NPR's National Desk. He covers law enforcement and privacy. He has been focused on police and use of force since before the 2014 protests in Ferguson, and that coverage led to the creation of NPR's Criminal Justice Collaborative.