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Georgia Had to Halt an Execution Because Its Drugs Went Bad

A good drug is hard to find.
March 3, 2015, 6:40pm

Last night the Georgia Department of Corrections delayed the execution of Kelly Renee Gissendaner, who was sentenced to death for plotting the murder of her husband in 1998, because the state's lethal injection drug, pentobarbital, turned visibly cloudy.

"Within the hours leading up to the scheduled execution, the Execution Team performed the necessary checks. At that time, the drugs appeared cloudy," Georgia Department of Corrections spokeswoman Gwendolyn Hogan said in a statement, acc​ording to Reuters.

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"The Department of Corrections immediately consulted with a pharmacist, and in an abundance of caution, Inmate Gissendaner's execution has been postponed," Hogan said.

Just as drug manufacturers made sodium thiopental difficult for departments of corrections to acquire, the availability of pharmaceutical-grade pentobarbital is also "unreliable and inconsistent," according to​ University of California San Francisco's Institutional Animal Care and Use Committee. Pentobarbital was used by veterinarians and describe​d by the state of Oklahoma as "an ideal anaesthetic agent for humane euthanasia in animals," when the state was making a case for using the drug in a lethal injection in 2010.

Georgia switched to a one-drug lethal injection protocol in February 2013. State laws prohibit releasing any identifying information about where the drugs are from, or any entity involved in the execution. However, according to the Deat​h Penalty Information Center, Georgia used drugs from an unnamed compounding pharmacy on June 17, 2014, for the execution of Marcus Wellons, the fir​st execution in America following the botched execution of Clayton Lo​ckett two months earlier.

Pentobarbital has a shelf life and needs to be stored properly. Once mixed, solutions have to be used within seven days, and must be disposed of if they turn cloudy, discolored, or if their appearance otherwise changes.

Georgia followed the advice of the pharmacist they called, but the incident once again draws attention to a problem with the way the death penalty is administered today: as a medical procedure, delivered by and large by non-medical personnel. Accor​ding to Richard Dieter at the Death Penalty Information Center, states are having difficulty finding physicians who are willing to be involved with an execution.

In the case of Georgia, the drugs were visibly flawed enough that the state contacted a medical professional. However, the lack of medical personnel opens the door to other undesirable outcomes. Clayton Lockett in Oklahoma was left struggling on the execution gurney until the state closed the blinds to witnesses and he died of a heart attack when the state struggled to find a blood vessel.

As Georgia was deciding​ to delay the execution, lawyers for Gissendaner were arguing that they didn't know enough about Georgia's lethal injection process to properly challenge it in court.