ACLU: Untested Drugs Dangerous in Executions

By Beacon Staff

HELENA – A long execution in Ohio that left the condemned inmate gasping and snorting illustrates the dangers of using untested drug combinations in lethal injections, said a civil-rights group suing Montana over its execution method.

Montana last year changed its lethal-injection method from a combination of three drugs to two, but there hasn’t been an execution in the state since the change and the combination of those two drugs is untested in the U.S., said American Civil Liberties Union of Montana attorney Anna Conley.

Thursday’s execution of condemned inmate Dennis McGuire also involved an untested combination of two chemicals, though they were different from the ones called for in Montana’s execution protocol. It took 26 minutes for McGuire to die, prompting calls of cruel and unusual punishment.

Even though the drugs used in the two states are not the same, the results should give state corrections officials pause, Conley said Friday. Executions should not be carried out without better knowledge of how the chemicals involved will work together, she said.

“Much like Ohio, the two-drug protocol Montana would like to use has never been tested. We have no idea how it will work,” she said.

Department of Corrections spokeswoman Linda Moodry said she could not comment because the matter is before the courts, but the state’s execution protocol is modeled after state law and it is “distinct from other states that conduct executions.”

The ACLU is representing death-row inmates Ronald Allen Smith and William Gollehon, who are asking a state judge to rule that Montana’s execution methods are unconstitutional and put condemned prisoners at risk of unnecessary suffering.

The organization argues the new policy going from three drugs to two was done without medical or scientific advice and without public input.

Assistant Attorney General Mark Fowler said in previous court filings that the inmates are rehashing arguments already ruled on and addressed by Department of Corrections changes, and that they improperly bring up new arguments.

The new procedure calls for an injection of the barbiturate sodium pentothal to put the inmate into a coma, followed by an injection of a paralytic agent called pancuronium bromide.

The revisions eliminated the third drug, potassium chloride, which is used to stop an inmate’s heart.

Sodium pentothal is no longer manufactured in the U.S., and it can’t be imported. The Department of Corrections said another barbiturate, pentobarbital, can be substituted for sodium pentothal. The plaintiffs argued that pentobarbital is not an adequate substitute for sodium pentothal and the two-drug procedure creates the risk that the inmate will suffer before death.

The ACLU and the inmates have asked District Judge Jeffrey Sherlock to rule on their complaint without a trial. A ruling is not expected before mid-February.

Stay Connected with the Daily Roundup.

Sign up for our newsletter and get the best of the Beacon delivered every day to your inbox.