RICHMOND, Va. (CBSDC/AP) — The Virginia Department of Corrections said Friday that rocuronium bromide will be used in executions to replace one that is in short supply nationwide.
In a one-sentence statement, the department said the new drug can now be used in the lethal injection cocktail as an alternative to the nationally scarce pancuronium bromide.
Death penalty experts said that while some other states have responded to the shortage by switching to a single, larger dose of a sedative that is typically the first of three drugs administered, Virginia appears to be the first to approve an alternative to the second drug. Some states also have switched the type of sedative used because of availability problems.
“Until 2009, all states were basically using the same three-drug protocol developed in Oklahoma in 1977,” said Deborah Denno, a Fordham University law professor who has studied execution methods around the country. “Since December 2009, we’ve seen the most rapid change ever with the lethal execution protocol since it was first introduced.”
She added that “rather than being fueled by a concern over humaneness, most of this has been fueled by drug availability.”
Denno and Richard Dieter of the Death Penalty Information Center both said they knew of no other state that has substituted a drug for pancuronium bromide, which is used to paralyze the muscles.
Stephen A. Northup, executive director of Virginians for Alternatives to the Death Penalty, said there is no pharmacological difference between the new and old drugs. He said the only purpose served by either drug is “so the witnesses don’t have to watch the inmate writhing or twitching if he’s in pain.” He said if the inmate is not sufficiently anesthetized by the first drug, the second one ensures that he won’t move when the third drug is administered to stop his heart.
Dr. Joel Zivot, an assistant professor of anesthesiology at Emory University School of Medicine in Atlanta, said the ingredients of a lethal injection cocktail are secondary.
“What’s at play here is an attempt to usurp the good name of medical practice and an attempt to use medicine in a way it has never been intended to be used,” he said.
In May, an anti-death penalty group called Reprieve complained that Virginia had a stockpile of 60 vials of pancuronium bromide while hospitals are in short supply. The group said that amount could be used to relax the muscles of 50 to 60 patients during hospital surgeries.
Department of Corrections spokesman Larry Traylor said Friday that he could not say how much pancuronium bromide the department has, whether it has expired or what will become of it.
Texas changed its execution method to a single dose of the sedative pentobarbital earlier this month after its stock of pancuronium bromide expired and it was unable to obtain more. Georgia also switched to a one-drug execution method a week later.
In Virginia, condemned inmates are allowed to choose either electrocution or lethal injection. If they refuse to make a choice, they get the injection. The federal government and all 34 death penalty states use lethal injection, although some have other methods available as backup.
Virginia has executed more people than any state except Texas since the U.S. Supreme Court reinstated the death penalty in 1976.
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