The state of Alabama has no shortage of reasons to stop putting people to death or at least take a break from executions. Now, it can add a shortage of a key lethal injection drug to the lengthy list.
The sedative sodium thiopental has become scarce because its only U.S. manufacturer stopped making it. States that use the death penalty have been scrambling at home and abroad to score new supplies of the drug, and Alabama got its most recent batch from the state of Tennessee.
But days after the deal was consummated in March, the federal Drug Enforcement Administration seized Tennessee's stash, along with stockpiles in Georgia and Kentucky, because of concerns the drug had been obtained illegally overseas. The DEA also asked Alabama to turn over the sodium thiopental it had gotten from Tennessee, taking our state's only vials of the drug.
You'd think that would be a problem, particularly for the upcoming executions of Jason Oric Williams (May 19) and Eddie Duval Powell (June 16). Instead of postponing the executions, however, the state prison system announced last week it will just use a substitute sedative in the executions.
Alabama's law, unlike some states, doesn't specify the drugs to be used in an execution, so the switch isn't a problem in that regard. But the Equal Justice Initiative, a Montgomery nonprofit that represents many on Death Row, is rightly concerned about prison officials switching to a new drug without enough training or scrutiny on the front end.
Among other things, the organization, which initially raised the issue of Tennessee-supplied sodium thiopental, is concerned Alabama officials weren't forthcoming enough about their supply of that drug or the plans to switch to another drug.
"The Alabama Department of Corrections should not be allowed to make up procedures for carrying out executions without accountability or transparency and in a manner that suggests some deception," the Equal Justice Initiative's executive director, Bryan Stevenson, said in a statement questioning "the legality and the propriety of these scheduled executions."
We agree: The executions should be postponed until the questions about the drug sequences are answered. But beyond that, the issue with the lethal injection drug ought to be an occasion for the state to address problems that have been around far longer than the sodium thiopental shortage.
Alabama's death penalty is not applied fairly, with factors such as race, wealth and social status playing a role in who gets executed. As we have noted before, most murder victims are black, but in murders that result in death sentences, the victims are overwhelmingly white.
Plus, the state is careless in these cases, not ensuring an adequate defense for poor defendants and allowing elected judges to issue death sentences when juries advise against it.
And it is becoming more and more clear that states like Alabama end up spending more to pursue a death sentence than it would cost them to lock up killers for the rest of their lives.
By all means, the shortage of sodium thiopental ought to stop the state's next two executions. But more than that, the drug shortage represents a good opportunity for Alabama to take a break from the death penalty and either use the hiatus to fix some of the death penalty's worst flaws -- or decide whether it's worth fixing at all.
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