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It's A Gray Area: Pursuing a truly lost cause

January 29, 2011|By James P. Gray

You have probably seen recent newspaper articles saying that the only U.S. manufacturer of sodium thiopental — the anesthetic that begins the three-drug process used in putting condemned prisoners to death — has announced that it was immediately ceasing production of that substance. The stated reason was that the company did not want any of its products to be associated with killing people.

At this point, California still has enough of the drug for about 80 executions, but after that it will be forced to look elsewhere.

There are companies in other countries that manufacture sodium thiopental, but it is a violation of law for many of them to export it to "rogue countries" for use in capital punishment. Of course in this case, one of those rogue countries is ours!

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And in those countries where its exportation is not illegal, there has been such a strong political backlash that the companies are not allowing its sale for that use. For example, Germany's minister of health publicly urged all companies and distributors not to provide the drug for such a purpose because, as he expressed it, such use is not in keeping with German and European values.

So if California cannot obtain enough sodium thiopental for use in executions, it will be forced to designate an alternative drug. But that would mean more hearings would have to be held, which would provide for more lengthy legal challenges.

And those challenges are what have stopped any executions from taking place at all in California for the last five years. Right now 718 prisoners are being held on death row, and by the time this issue with sodium thiopental is resolved, there will literally be hundreds more. And then, as a practical matter, some other "unforeseen" issues will probably crop up, resulting in further delay.

Recently the group Death Penalty Focus circulated what it calls a Joint Statement from Law Enforcement Professionals on California's Death Penalty to people who would qualify to sign it. For more information, visit http://www.deathpenalty.org/lawenforcement. That statement reads as follows:

"We are current and former law enforcement officers, prosecutors, judges, and corrections officers who have devoted our lives to improving public safety as well as the accuracy and fairness of the criminal justice system. Having seen the system from the inside, we know that the death penalty is deeply flawed for myriad reasons. We come to this issue from a variety of perspectives.

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