The Official Newspaper of the Diocese of Little Rock

Deadly medicine: Will the executions continue?

Published: April 27, 2017   

Arkansas might find it difficult to acquire and use drugs normally used to treat patients for minor procedures and surgeries to carry out any more executions in 2017. The state has so far executed three men -- Ledell Lee, April 20 and Jack Jones and Marcel Williams, April 24 -- using a three-drug protocol. The final execution is scheduled April 27. 

Some states have chosen other methods of acquiring drugs for lethal injections. Some get their drugs compounded while other states are trying to buy the drugs from other countries.

Since 2015 Arkansas law protects the state from identifying the manufacturer and distributor of the drugs, but court challenges and lawsuits have brought the drug company names to light. All companies involved in creating and selling the drugs have said they don’t want their products used in executions.

The state’s three-drug protocol is:

  • Midazolam, which is used in minor surgical procedures to sedate a patient. The manufacturer, West-Ward Pharmaceuticals, recently learned the drug they believe they manufactured would be used in the Arkansas executions. It is unclear how the state obtained this drug. 

“If the State of Arkansas was able to procure any of our U.S.-manufactured drugs for use in lethal injections despite these controls — which it will not confirm or deny to us — it was not directly from us, nor with our knowledge,” Brooke Clarke, spokeswoman of Hikma Pharmaceuticals, the parent company of West-Ward.

The state’s supply of midazolam is set to expire April 30.

  • Vecuronium bromide, which is made by the nation’s largest drug manufacturer, Pfizer. This drug is used to stop a prisoner’s breathing. McKesson, the drug distributor, filed a lawsuit against the state and Department of Correction for illegally obtaining the drug. The company had previously asked for the state to return the drugs and issued a refund to the state. On April 19 a Pulaski County Circuit Court judge orally granted McKesson a temporary restraining order that would postpone the two executions April 20 and three other death sentences April 24 and 27. The Arkansas Supreme Court reversed the lower court’s decision.

The Death Penalty Information Center said this lawsuit was the first time a company directly asked the court to stop its drugs from being used.

  • Potassium chloride, which is manufactured by Fresenius Kabi USA. It is used to stop the inmate’s heart. They said they show no records of their drugs being sold to the DOC so they can only surmise that they were obtained illegally. The DOC has said the drugs made by Fresenius Kabi were donated to the state.

West-Ward Pharmaceuticals and Fresenius Kabi USA also have said they don’t want their products used in executions and filed an amicus brief in federal court to ask U.S. District Judge Kristine Baker to block the state from using their drugs. Baker’s ruling did call into question the use of West-Ward’s midazolam in executions after issues have occurred in other states.  The 8th Circuit Court of Appeals rejected Baker’s ruling.

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