Thursday evening, prison officials in Texas executed the serial killer Tommy Lynn Sells by injecting him with a controversial drug called pentobarbital.
Sells was a very bad man. He was convicted of murder, and claimed to have committed as many as 70 others. In a 2010 interview with ABC News, he likened the taking of lives to his heroin addiction. “The first time I killed somebody, it was such a rush,” Sells said. “It was just like that, a shot of dope every time I did it, it was that rush again, and I started chasing that high.”
According to a description of the execution by Associated Press, Sells quickly nodded off and began to snore after prison officials injected him with pentobarbital. He stopped moving within a minute, and was dead within another 12.
If anything about executions is routine, this one probably was — except for the fact that the company that manufactured the drug was kept secret, despite an attempt by defense attorneys to force the Texas Department of Criminal Justice to disclose the name of the supplier in order for them to verify the drug’s quality and efficacy.
Pentobarbital is in short supply. The shortage is the latest example of a serious dilemma confronting the prison-industrial complex: obtaining enough execution drugs is proving difficult, and few manufacturers want to admit to making them.
This shortage began in 2011, when Hospira halted production of a drug used for executions called sodium thiopental. In a press release, the company explained that it had never condoned the use of the drug in capital punishment, and said that it “could not prevent the drug from being diverted to departments of corrections for use in capital punishment procedures.”
As a result of the sudden halt in sodium thiopental production, prisons across the country scrambled to find an alternative — a shortage that caused various states to postpone scheduled executions. Many prisons eventually substituted pentobarbital.
The drug is produced by the Danish company Lundbeck, and it didn’t take long for the company to learn that American prisons planned to use it for execution. Instead of cutting off production, Lundbeck restructured its distribution network to ensure that none of the drug, which has several medical applications, would end up getting used for executions. This left officials in many of the 35 states that use lethal injections struggling to figure out what to do.
Missouri attempted to purchase pentobarbital from a “compounding pharmacy” — a loosely regulated, little known sector of the pharmaceuticals industry that’s supposed to make custom blends of prescription drugs. But a lawsuit filed by lawyers for a death row inmate blocked the state from completing the purchase.
The argument used to prevent compounding pharmacies from providing these drugs is pretty straightforward: allowing unregulated (or, in Sells’s case, unknown) producers to supply execution drugs risks causing the prisoners excruciating pain. Because the manufacture is largely unregulated, it’s impossible to verify that the pentobarbital is being prepared correctly.
A lawsuit filed in 2013 claimed that Texas was secretly experimenting with new drugs in an attempt to keep its executions on schedule. The lawsuit also suspected the state of tricking companies into providing the drugs for capital punishment.
To date, Texas has executed 513 inmates since the reinstatement of the death penalty in 1976. Its Department of Criminal Justice is scheduled to put convicted murder Ramiro Hernandez Llanas to death on April 9, using the same pentobarbital-based method as in the Sells execution.
Image via Flickr