Tennessee halts executions after failing to test lethal injection drugs

Tennessee’s governor on Monday ordered a halt to all executions through the end of the year and opened an investigation into why the state failed to properly test lethal injection drugs that were to be used on a prisoner last month.

The execution of this prisoner, Oscar F. Smith, was halted about an hour before he was scheduled to be killed because the drugs were not tested for endotoxins, contaminants that could cause side effects unpredictable if injected. The moratorium will temporarily delay the execution of Mr Smith and four other men who were due to die this year.

Failure to test for toxins, which experts say could cause respiratory failure or other distressing symptoms before death, was the latest in a series of mistakes and challenges for states seeking to enforce the death penalty while lethal drugs are more difficult to obtain. An Oklahoma judge is weighing whether a drug used in executions in several states, including Oklahoma and Tennessee, is constitutional, and South Carolina is set to carry out its first execution by firing squad after declaring that she could no longer acquire lethal injection drugs.

Governor Bill Lee of Tennessee, a Republican, said Monday that Ed Stanton, a former Tennessee federal prosecutor, would lead an investigation into why drugs used for lethal injection had not been tested for endotoxins. .

Lawyers for Mr. Smith, who had called for a moratorium and an investigation, welcomed the governor’s decision.

“The use of compounded drugs in the context of lethal injection carries many risks,” Kelley Henry, senior death penalty attorney at the Federal Public Defender’s Office in Nashville, said in a statement. “Failing to test for endotoxins is a violation of protocol. Governor Lee did the right thing by stopping executions because of this violation.

Wendy Galbraith, a professor of pharmaceutical sciences at the University of Oklahoma Health Sciences Center, said she was alarmed that a pharmacist apparently did not test the drugs for endotoxins, given that he is This is a standard part of drug preparation and only takes about 20 minutes to complete.

“It’s so simple,” Dr. Galbraith said, noting that the United States Pharmacopeia, or USP, publishes standards for pharmacists, including for endotoxin researchand that “every pharmacist follows the USP”

Harry Kochat, a pharmaceutical science expert at the University of Tennessee Health Sciences Center, says endotoxins are left behind when bacteria are killed and can quickly cause hypotension, respiratory failure and other catastrophic effects. , depending on the dose.

“By the time the endotoxins enter, the first symptom often reported is fever, which can cause secondary infections and affect your organs,” said Dr Kochat, who leads the university center for the study of the administration of sterile drugs.

In 1990 a jury found Mr Smith guilty of three counts of murder and sentenced him to death for killing his ex-wife and two of his children the previous year. Mr Smith, who is 72 and the state’s oldest death row prisoner, has maintained his innocence.

On April 21, when Mr. Smith was due to be executed, he was communing with his spiritual adviser, the Reverend Matthew Lewis, when a manager informed him that he had been granted a last-minute reprieve, Mr. Lewis told a recent press conference.

For more than a week, Governor Lee did not reveal what was wrong with the lethal injection drugs, and Mr. Smith’s lawyers said as recently as Friday that they did not know why he had got a reprieve.

“It’s possible to be both grateful for life and also stuck in a horrible place of not knowing,” Amy Harwell, one of his lawyers, said at the time, describing Mr Smith’s condition. “Mr Smith is currently living in a bind that the courts have not condemned him to.

Tennessee uses three drugs during executions: one intended to render a prisoner unconscious, another to induce paralysis, and a third to stop the heart. Where the state cannot obtain the drugs from the manufacturers and must instead compound them, a licensed pharmacist must follow standard safety procedures when compounding the drugs and must test the drugs for potency, sterility, and the presence of endotoxins , depending on state regulations. lethal injection manual.

Several drug experts said there was an irony in halting executions for not testing something that could cause illness or death.

“With lethal injection, everything is ironic,” said Dr. Jonathan Groner, a professor of surgery at Ohio State University College of Medicine who has studied and written against the death penalty. “You worry about something that might kill someone in a drug meant to kill someone.”

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