Meadville Tribune

May 3, 2014

Pennsylvania's lethal injection relies on same drug as botched Oklahoma execution

By John Finnerty
Meadville Tribune

HARRISBURG — Pennsylvania’s lethal injection drug cocktail relies on the same drug used in a January botched execution during which an Oklahoma inmate exclaimed: “My whole body is burning.”

After the January execution of Michael Lee Wilson, Oklahoma stopped using a form of pentobarbital as the initial drug in the lethal injection process. But Tuesday, another execution in the state went awry. In the latest episode, convicted killer Clayton Lockett began writhing and clenching his teeth after he was supposedly rendered unconscious, according to The Associated Press. The execution was halted and Lockett died of a heart attack about a half-hour later.

“Lethal injection was supposed to be a sanitized form of execution, but it’s ghastly,” said Andrew Hoover, legislative director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania, which opposes the use of capital punishment.

Critics say that the botched executions raise questions about whether lethal injection violates the constitutional prohibition against “cruel and unusual punishment.”

Pennsylvania is one of 32 states with capital punishment, but no one has been executed in the commonwealth since 1999. Ohio is the only state neighboring Pennsylvania that has capital punishment, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. Maryland abandoned the use of capital punishment last year, according to the NCSL.

Pennsylvania’s lethal injection drug cocktail includes sodium pentobarbital, to put the prisoner to sleep, followed by pancurium bromide and potassium chloride, said Susan Bensinger, a spokeswoman for the Department of Corrections. The final drug is the same drug that Oklahoma prison officials would have administered if Lockett’s execution had not been halted.

“This drug protocol has been utilized by other state DOCs and also has been reviewed by the U.S. Supreme Court,” Bensinger said.

Bensinger would not comment when asked if the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections had determined if the sodium pentobarbital it would use is different from the version employed in Oklahoma in January.

“I am concerned I would jeopardize the integrity of the confidentiality,” she said.

The cloak of secrecy frustrates critics like Marc Bookman, director of the Atlantic Center for Capital Representation, based in Philadelphia.

“The real lesson from the Oklahoma botched execution is not which drugs work and which don’t, it’s that we have to let the light of day into the process so the right questions can be asked and the fair decisions reached,” Bookman said. “Whether our drugs are the same or different depends on a myriad of factors — but the overriding requirement is that the information be made available so that due process can take place and Pennsylvania can do its best to avoid the Oklahoma disaster.”

A day before this week’s botched execution in Oklahoma, Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Corbett signed a warrant ordering the death of a Philadelphia man convicted of killing a police officer. It was the 32nd death warrant signed by Corbett, but no Pennsylvania inmate has been executed in 15 years. The rest of the executions have been halted by appeals.

“The fact that we haven’t had an execution since 1999 has led to complacency” on the issue in Pennsylvania, Hoover said. “At some point, the appeals will run out.”

There are 190 people — 187 men and three women — on Pennsylvania’s death row.

John Finnerty reports from the CNHI Harrisburg Bureau for The Meadville Tribune and other Pennsylvania newspapers owned by Community Newspaper Holdings Inc. Email him at and follow him on Twitter @cnhipa.