by Judith Evans
Accountability and transparency are key elements in a fair criminal justice system, particularly for the rights of death row inmates. If some Idaho lawmakers have their way, however, the identities of pharmacies that supply lethal injection drugs will remain secret. Nineteen other states have similar shield laws, which have resulted in botched executions and deprived inmates of critical information about the drugs and their sources.
Idaho House Bill 658
Introduced by Idaho Representative Greg Chaney (R-Caldwell), House Bill 658 would shield the identities of suppliers of lethal injection drugs used in state executions. On Thursday, February 17, 2022, the Idaho House Judiciary, Rules and Administration Committee sent the bill to the full House of Representatives with a recommendation to pass. After a brief debate, the House passed the bill by a margin of 38-30 votes on February 24, 2022. If the Idaho Senate passes the bill, it could become law if Governor Brad Little signs it or be allowed to become law without the Governor’s signature. The bill would also prohibit the release of the identities of on-site physicians, medical teams and escorts who aid in executions.
The bill is an attempt to circumvent protests against companies that supply lethal injection drugs such as pentobarbital. In the last decade, major drug manufacturers such as Pfizer have announced that they will not allow their products to be used for executions. Suppliers of lethal injection drugs are refusing to provide the drugs unless Idaho officials can guarantee confidentiality.
Secrecy Threatens Inmate Rights and Public Safety
The secrecy surrounding the purchase of lethal injection drugs is yet another example of the toxic effects of the death penalty system. In 2012, for example, the purchase of lethal injection drugs for Idaho involved a suitcase full of cash and a meeting in a Tacoma, Washington parking lot. No state agency should be conducting business in this way, especially when lives are at stake.
States are now relying on compounding pharmacies to provide drugs such as pentobarbital for use in executions. Compounding pharmacies are not regulated by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and can produce inconsistent or poor quality batches of drugs. Shield laws that hide the names of drug suppliers prevent inmates and the general public from challenging the quality and safety of specific drugs.
Without a way to track the supply of these drugs, the safety of the general public is also at risk. Secret meetings in parking lots and anonymous pharmacies increase the likelihood that the drugs could end up outside the prison system.
Botched Executions in States that Have Shield Laws
When the identities of drug suppliers are kept secret, it is impossible to research the effects of lethal injection drugs or the safety records of compounding pharmacies. This lack of accountability has resulted in botched executions that most certainly violated the Constitutional prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment. Recent executions in the state of Oklahoma present examples of the horrific suffering that lethal injections cause:
2014 — After being denied access to the names of the sources of experimental lethal injection drugs, Clayton Lockett gasped and writhed in the execution chamber for 43 minutes before dying of a heart attack.
2015 — Charles Warner was given the drug potassium acetate, which had mistakenly been sent to the Oklahoma Department of Corrections. The drug caused severe pain, causing Warner to say, “It feels like acid,” and “My body is on fire.”
2021 — The drug midazolam caused John Grant’s lungs to quickly fill with fluid. Grant suffered from violent convulsions, suffocation, vomiting, and intramuscular hemorrhaging for 15 minutes before he died.
The Death Penalty is a Shameful Practice
Capital punishment dehumanizes everyone who is involved, from the inmate to the pharmacist who compounds the drugs. Suppliers of lethal injection drugs are demanding secrecy because they do not want to be publicly shamed as participants in this barbaric practice. Legislation such as Idaho’s House Bill 658 shines a light on shadowy transactions that result in torturous suffering.
If House Bill 658 becomes law, Idaho will likely join the list of states with botched executions, and inmates will have no ability to investigate the drugs or their suppliers. If secrecy is the only way states can obtain lethal injection drugs, it’s because the death penalty is a shameful practice and must be abolished.