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Death Penalty: States Transition to One-Drug Executions

Both Yokamon Hearn and Warren Hill were scheduled to die on Wednesday.

While Texas put to death Hearn as planned, in the state’s first execution using a new process for lethal injection — with one drug instead of a three-drug mix — Georgia Department of Corrections postponed Hill’s execution until Monday at 7 p.m. to also make the switch to the single sedative pentobarbital.

Both states followed the same procedural change as other state criminal justice departments — including Ohio, Arizona and Idaho — that have run into problems finding the supply of the three-drug mix. While the change revives the capital punishment issue, it’s not one causing much controversy.

Experts Richard Dieter and Kent Scheidegger both explained what the change means in phone interviews with the NewsHour on Thursday.

Dieter is the executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center, a non-profit group that aims to present nonpartisan research on capital punishment in the U.S. The organization has been recognized by death penalty abolitionist groups as a champion of undermining capital punishment policy.
Scheidegger is legal director of Criminal Justice Legal Foundation, a non-profit based in California. He writes for the Crime and Consequences blog, which focuses less on the defense of criminals and more on society’s choice to punish.

Dieter said the single-drug cocktail had been recommended by doctors and defense attorneys:

The three-drug process is risky, two drugs are very painful and if the first drug is not administered correctly, it is an excruciating form of execution . . . Death takes longer with the one-drug process than the three-drug process, which stops the heart very quickly. Last night’s execution in Texas took about 25 minutes and usually these things are over in a few minutes.

“The pentobarbital is not a painful drug,” said Scheidegger.

It in fact is a powerful sedative. And the argument always was, if the person was not sedated by the first drug, he would feel pain by the second and third . . . The second reason is that the second drug (pancuronium bromide) in the standard drug protocol has largely become unavailable, and that I think is largely why Texas switched.

Dieter also said it’s hard for states to obtain the drugs.

One is simpler to get than three, plus one drug avoids the legal challenges of pain the other drugs cause. It’s a natural evolution and I think other states will follow suit, but each state need to make necessary steps to do it right.

In both inmates’ cases, the more controversial issue was whether their death sentences could be considered cruel and unusual punishment.

Both Hearn’s and Hill’s attorneys argued that the inmates’ low IQs should prevent them from being put to death. The U.S. Supreme Court didn’t step in on Hearn’s situation; Hill still awaits the High Court’s decision.

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