WASHINGTON (CN) – The Trump administration’s decision to resume federal executions, and to use a single drug with a history of problems to carry them out, prompted the launch of an investigation Wednesday by House Democrats.
Until 2009, according to the Death Penalty Information Center, lethal injection was predominantly administered in the United States in the form of a cocktail containing three drugs: the sedative sodium thinopental, a paralytic agent called pancuronium bromide and potassium chloride, a drug that stops the heart and causes death.
But drug shortages in the years prompted states like Texas and Georgia to opt for a single-drug injection instead. Those injections contained only pentobarbital, a drug that slows brain activity and collapses the nervous system.
The U.S. Supreme Court has historically upheld states’ rights to use pentobarbital, though its use in some executions has resulted in prisoners experiencing pain, describing the sensation of “burning” through their body in the moments before their death.
It was the Justice Department’s decision last month to resume federal executions and switch to a pentobarbital-only method that prompted Democrats on the House Oversight Subcommittee on Civil Rights and Civil Liberties to announce the new investigation Wednesday.
Questions swirl around the efficacy of the single-drug injection, Chairman Jamie Raskin and Massachusetts Congresswoman Ayanna Pressley, a member of the subcommittee, said in a statement.
How the government procures it is also an issue, the lawmakers said. Typically, the chemical comes from facilities known as compounding pharmacies which produce drug mixtures for markets that are far less regulated than their large-scale corporate counterparts.
“We are extremely concerned about the types of facilities from which the Bureau [of Prisons] will obtain its pentobarbital, whether the Bureau will be able to guarantee that its intended method of execution is as painless as possible and whether the Bureau will be subject to rigorous protocols to prevent the problems that occurred at the state level,” Raskin and Pressley said.
One such problem occurred in Texas, a state responsible for the majority of executions in the nation. According to a declaration filed in Texas federal court last year, the state’s Department of Criminal Justice was said to have habitually purchased lethal injection drugs from a compounding pharmacy with a long history of safety violations and lax sterility standards.
Similar allegations of contamination have also cropped up in Missouri.
The last federal execution was held in 2003. All told, the U.S. government has executed 37 people since 1927 and the practice has been on a steady decline for years not only at the federal level, but at the state level too.
Public opinion supporting capital punishment has also waned over the last decade.
According to a 2018 Pew Research Center poll, just 54% of those surveyed said they were in favor of the death penalty. It was a drastic drop from a decade earlier, when support hovered around 78%.
As part of the investigation into the Justice Department’s about-face on federal executions, the House Oversight subcommittee asked Attorney General William Barr and Hugh Hurwitz, acting director of the Bureau of Prisons, to provide lawmakers with a host of records.
Those documents include a copy of a review of execution protocols issued under former President Barack Obama’s administration and any records which could reveal the steps the department took to implement recommendations. Democrats also want to know how pentobarbital is acquired, manufactured and paid for through the bureau, as well as information on which people outside of the bureau and the department may have been consulted when the Trump administration announced the change.
The subcommittee has asked the agencies to respond no later than Aug. 27.
The next federal executions expected to take place under the revised order will begin this December barring any delays. The men set to be executed include convicted murderers Daniel Lewis Lee, Alfred Bourgeois, Dustin Lee Honken, Wesley Ira Purkey and Lezmond Mitchell.
In 2001, Mitchell abducted and murdered Alyce Slim, a 63-year-old, and her 9-year-old granddaughter. He beat them viciously and terrorized the young girl. At one point, before he slit the child’s throat, he forced her to ride alongside her grandmother’s body in the back of Slim’s own pick-up truck. Mitchell stabbed Slim 33 times.
The federal death penalty is only pursued in certain circumstances, including crimes like terrorism, espionage, political assassination and murder on public land. But even in a horrific case like Mitchell’s, the matter can often be left to states to decide. The death penalty is legal in 29 states.
Barr’s announcement last month indicated the Trump administration’s aim to more vigorously punish the “worst criminals” and violent offenders.
On Monday, two days before the committee announced its investigation, Barr delivered remarks at a Fraternal Order of Police conference in Louisiana using language echoing July’s guidance.
Calling for “swift and certain” punishment of criminals, Barr told law enforcement officers the administration will propose legislation after Labor Day encouraging death sentences for those who commit mass shootings and kill police officers.
The Justice Department did not immediately respond to request for comment Wednesday.