Cover Story: Georgia’s long-standing lethal injection controversy

Thirteen years ago, Georgia stopped killing prisoners via the electric chair. But its continued use of deadly drugs hasn’t gone so well.

In 2001, the Georgia Supreme Court declared the use of the electric chair unconstitutional, deeming it “cruel and unusual punishment.” Since then, Georgia has used lethal injection as its lone instrument to execute capital offenders.

The three-drug cocktail widely used has been a mix of sodium thiopental or, by 2011, pentobarbital (pictured), to render a prisoner unconscious; pancuronium bromide to incur paralysis; and potassium chloride to stop the heart.

Supporters of the method characterize it as the most humane form of execution. But many pharmaceutical companies have shied away from knowingly manufacturing drugs meant to cause death in recent years. In 2011, the drugs became sparse. Soon after, Georgia and several other states were accused of cutting corners to obtain sodium thiopental. International pressure on the drug suppliers made it even harder to obtain.

Officials from the Georgia Diagnostic and Classification Prison, where the state’s executions take place, began looking elsewhere for the drug, even going so far as to try obtaining a shipment from a supplier in England. There are strict federal laws for buying drugs from overseas and the shipment was eventually stopped in Memphis as it awaited inspection from the Federal Food and Drug Administration. While death row waited, the drug’s shelf life was running out.

A series of email correspondences, published in the New York Times in April 2011, detailed the plan to obtain the drugs directly from the supplier in England.

The correspondence also shows close cooperation between several states to disperse the drug to prisons to carry out executions. The cache of sodium thiopental was ultimately seized by the DEA. The London-based supplier Dream Pharma would not state where it obtained the drug.

As the state’s lethal injection drugs began to expire, Georgia reduced the three-drug cocktail down to a single dose of pentobarbital, which some critics say causes pain if not administered correctly. It is the same drug many veterinarians use to put down animals. If the proper dosage isn’t administered, a prisoner may be awake when the pancuronium bromide and potassium chloride kick in. The excruciating pain in those moments can be torturous.

Last year, Georgia passed a law allowing for the nondisclosure of lethal injection drugs, which now makes it nearly impossible to trace their origins. Critics say the law allows state officials to acquire illegal or harmful drugs — and to do so without full accountability. Recently, the Georgia Department of Corrections showed up in a series of emails published by a New Orleans-based news outlet between a Louisiana Department of Corrections warden and an Oklahoma pharmacy called the Apothecary Shoppe. The exchange has raised even more questions about the 2013 law and its ramifications.

A section of the pharmacy’s nondisclosure form reads, “The company will need to provide certain confidential information to recipient in order for recipient to perform certain aspects of recipient’s employment with Georgia Department of Corrections.”

This requirement has slowed the rate of executions carried out in Georgia, due to appeals from death-row inmates related to the possible problems with the drugs. But the executions haven’t stopped. As drug supplies continue to dwindle, and more companies refuse to play a role in supporting executions, the future of Georgia’s death penalty — or at least what method is used — remains uncertain.