Arizona hasn’t executed prisoners since a botched attempt in 2014, but that may soon change thanks to a recent ruling from the Department of Justice.
U.S. Attorney General William Barr announced in July that the federal government will resume executions after more than 15 years and when it does, it will abandon the use of multi-drug lethal injections, instead using only one drug moving forward: pentobarbital.
One day after Barr’s announcement, Arizona Attorney General Mark Brnovich (R-Ariz) wrote a letter to Gov. Doug Ducey (R-Ariz), urging him to resume executions and asking him for help obtaining pentobarbital, a sedative which American manufacturers have refused to provide to prisons for use in executions.
Despite these obstacles, 14 other states have used pentobarbital in over 200 executions since 2010, finding ways to obtain the drug from foreign countries or from compounding pharmacies, which are companies that produce combinations of drugs and which, unlike drug manufacturers, are barely regulated.
As far as we know, Arizona has not previously tried to purchase pentobarbital from foreign countries, but the state did (unsuccessfully) try to illegally import sodium thiopental from India in 2015 for use in executions.
Brnovich told NPR this week that he believes it might be possible for Arizona acquire pentobarbital from foreign countries, and he hopes to do just that. The state has also renewed its application with the DEA to import pentobarbital, but NPR reports that it’s unclear whether the state has been able to obtain the drug.
Arizona suspended executions in 2014 after the botched execution of prisoner Joseph Wood, during which Wood flailed against the restraints, snorted and gasped for air for nearly two hours before dying. In the aftermath, Arizona also changed its lethal injection guidelines and implemented a single-drug protocol.
The state has struggled to find a drug that fits its protocol, but with Barr’s endorsement of pentobarbital, Brnovich is hoping to resume executions of Arizona’s death row inmates using the drug as soon as possible.
There are currently 116 inmates on death row in the state and 14 of them have exhausted the appeals process. “I think we have an obligation to uphold the rule of law and make sure those sentences are carried out,” Brnovich told NPR.
Opponents of the death penalty have raised concerns about the safety of pentobarbital, citing the lack of FDA approval of foreign pentobarbital and the absence of oversight of the compounding pharmacies which frequently produce the drug.
As New York Magazine reported in July, these opponents specifically point to Texas, where five of the 11 inmates executed with pentobarbital in 2018 complained of a painful “burning” sensation as locally manufactured pentobarbital entered their veins. These critics insist this means that the pentobarbital, which is supposed to be painless, was contaminated at the compounding pharmacies that produced it.
Following those inmates’ claims, a BuzzFeed News investigation found that the Texas Department of Criminal Justice purchased pentobarbital for lethal injections from at least eight compounding pharmacies that had their licenses revoked or placed on probation, including one compounding pharmacy that regulators have repeatedly cited for dangerous practices.
That company, Greenpark Compounding Pharmacy in Houston, was “cited for scores of safety violations,” having “compounded the wrong drug for three children, sending one to the emergency room, and forged quality-control documents.”
Despite these concerns about the safety of pentobarbital and the danger it could pose to inmates, Brnovich remains focused on resuming executions and is less concerned with the defendants on Death Row, telling NPR he is certain that the 14 people set for execution are guilty.
“Every single one of them committed heinous crimes, and so I think every single one of them deserves the ultimate punishment.”
Brnovich may be confident of their guilt, but a 2014 study from the National Academy of Sciences found that one out of every 25 defendants executed in the United States is innocent.
An additional 166 death row inmates have been released after evidence of their innocence was discovered, which means that for every nine people executed in the U.S., one innocent person has been exonerated, according to the nonprofit Equal Justice Initiative.
In Arizona alone, nine innocent former death row inmates have been released since 1973, including one as recently as 2015, according to the Death Penalty Information Center, a nonprofit focused on analyzing capital punishment.
But Brnovich remains unbowed, and should the state find a source for pentobarbital, executions could once again resume in Arizona.