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Texas Uses Single-Drug Lethal Injection in Execution

July 19, 2012 at 12:00 AM EDT
Since 1982, Texas had used a three-drug cocktail in lethal injections for death row executions. But now the state has switched to a single-drug injection due to production shortages of other lethal drugs. Jeffrey Brown talks to The Associated Press' Michael Graczyk about the change.
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RAY SUAREZ: Texas executed a death row inmate with a single-sedative drug for the first time last night. He was 33-year-old convicted murderer Yokamon Hearn. The state had used pentobarbital as part of a three-drug cocktail in lethal injections since 1982, but never on its own.

The change in policy follows other states nationwide that have made the same switch because of a lack of supply of another lethal drug. The Georgia Department of Corrections made the same change this week to the single dose, postponed the execution of inmate Warren Hill until Monday.

Michael Graczyk of The Associated Press has witnessed more than 300 executions in the state of Texas. I spoke with him a short time ago.

Michael Graczyk, welcome.

What argument did Yokamon Hearn’s lawyers use to delay the carrying out of the execution in order to stop it altogether?

MICHAEL GRACZYK, Associated Press: Well, they had raised two specific questions before the Supreme Court.

The first one was that he had suffered fetal alcohol syndrome that had stunted his mental development as a result of his mother taking quantities of alcohol when she was pregnant with him. Although his I.Q. tests showed that he was above the levels we generally consider the threshold for mental impairment, they said that that should be considered — the fetal alcohol syndrome should be considered as a circumstance to allow the I.Q. tests to be somewhat — considered as a less — less effect.

The second argument was that his attorneys at his trial and early in his appeals process didn’t pursue the arguments about his background when he was growing up and the fact that he had a mental impairment that probably should have stopped his execution, at least in their judgment.

And there were some conflicts in federal appellate decisions that they said needed to be resolved that impeded their ability to file those appeals at the last minute.

RAY SUAREZ: These are the kind of arguments that are making their way to the Supreme Court for relief, for stays. Did they make any headway?

MICHAEL GRACZYK: Didn’t appear to.

The Supreme Court issued two very brief one-paragraph, almost identical rulings that rejected each of the appeals. And that happened about three-and-a-half-hours before Hearn was put to death. So they were unsuccessful in their attempts to delay the punishment. It had been stopped several years ago to pursue his mental impairment claims, but those eventually were resolved as well, and that allowed the state to set the new date for yesterday.

RAY SUAREZ: What’s been getting a lot of attention in the wake of Yokamon Hearn’s death is the use of a single drug to bring about his death.

Why is that significant?

MICHAEL GRACZYK: I don’t know why it’s really significant.

I think in Texas, at least, it shows that the state was able to successfully carry out the death penalty in this case and move on from the traditional three-drug procedure that they had used since the death penalty resumed here back in 1982.

Certainly, there had been arguments raised earlier in other states. I believe there are four that went to the one-drug procedure within the past year or so. Mr. Hearn had excellent attorneys. I think if they thought there would have been some legal avenue to pursue here in Texas, they would have done so. But they chose not to pursue any sort of appeals based on the drug switch.

RAY SUAREZ: Well, you were a witness to the execution using pentobarbital, a single drug, as opposed to the three-drug cocktail. Was there any difference in the manner of death?

MICHAEL GRACZYK: Didn’t appear so.

Some of the procedural issues were a little bit different. What we have been become accustomed to seeing is that the execution itself takes about out, oh, 10 or 12 minutes. Yesterday, we were in the death chamber for about 25 minutes.

And 20 minutes of that was as the prison officials were administering the pentobarbital. So the length of time was the biggest difference. As far as the reaction of the inmate, it was nothing at all different than what we have become accustomed to seeing with the previous procedure.

He was breathing deeply within the first seconds of the drug being administered, and essentially went to sleep and began snoring. And then the audio nature of the snores became less pronounced. And, finally, there was no noise and no movement at all.

And then we stood there for roughly 20 minutes while the remainder of the drug was administered. And then after about three or four or five minutes later, a physician came in and pronounced him dead.

So the duration of the entire procedure was significantly longer, almost twice — or greater than twice — twice the amount of time we have become accustomed to.

RAY SUAREZ: Might there be a problem with getting pentobarbital in the future? The producer is under a lot of pressure from around the world to stop selling it for people who might use it for executions.

MICHAEL GRACZYK: I suspect that may be the case.

And I think, in some of the other states, there’s already talk of being prepared to use a different drug, propofol, which has become somewhat famous or notorious as the drug that took Michael Jackson’s life. So I think there are already movements in that direction.

I know here in Texas, at least, the state has said it had enough of the pentobarbital to carry out 23 executions, beginning with the one that occurred last night. So there are — there are, I believe, eight on the schedule now for at least this year. And the average in the state has been in the mid to upper teens.

So at least here in Texas, I don’t anticipate that becoming an issue for some time.

RAY SUAREZ: Michael Graczyk of the Associated Press, thanks for joining us.

You can find more information about the two sides of this debate on our website. We have posted two Q&As with representatives from the Death Penalty Information Center and the Criminal Justice Legal Foundation.