U.S. group urges states to use only legal drugs for executions

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[May 08, 2014]  By Reuters Staff

WASHINGTON (Reuters) U.S. states executing prisoners should stick to using legally obtained drugs approved by federal health regulators, despite shortages that have left officials scrambling, a legal rights advocacy group urged in recommendations released on Wednesday.

The Constitution Project said in a report that drugs used in executions should have U.S. Food and Drug Administration approval, and should be checked to ensure they are effective and have not expired.

Capital punishment is a possible sentence in 32 of the 50 U.S. states, and many states are grappling with a shortage of drugs once used for executions. Pharmaceutical manufacturers and governments in Europe, where many of the companies are headquartered, object to use of the products in executions.

The report said most states use a combination of three drugs for lethal injections: sodium thiopental as an anesthetic, pancuronium bromide as a muscle relaxer and potassium chloride to stop the heart.

"Although many states require the use of sodium thiopental in their lethal injection procedures, the shortage of the drug for executions has caused states to scramble to find alternative supplies or to begin using a different drug as a replacement," the group wrote.

Last week, a botched execution in Oklahoma prompted President Barack Obama to call for a federal investigation. State officials cited problems with the inmate's veins. The situation brought renewed scrutiny of execution procedures, which vary state by state.

In the wake of drug shortages, some states have turned to new lethal "cocktails" as an alternative to hard-to-obtain, FDA-approved drugs. Those face legal challenges.

The wide-ranging report by the Constitution Project also urged states to ensure their facilities are set up correctly and that properly-trained medical personnel deliver the injections.

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The group calls for 39 changes to the capital punishment system to ensure constitutional rights are protected.

For example, it seeks new standards for obtaining and reviewing forensic evidence and calls on Congress to establish a federal system to accredit forensic laboratories.

It recommended other safeguards such as preservation and review of evidence after conviction to help prevent executions of innocent people. It also called for major reforms in several states including Texas, Alabama, California and Pennsylvania.

"While some jurisdictions have made progress toward implementation of best practices, others persist with policies that appear harder to justify in light of changing knowledge and standards," it said in its report.

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