Florida Death Row Inmates Challenge New Execution Drug

Oct 4, 2013

The lethal injection room at California's San Quentin State Prison
Credit California Department of Corrections

Several Florida death row inmates are challenging the state’s new lethal injection drug because it’s never been used in executions and they say it could result in severe pain. The state says the change is because of a national execution-drug shortage.

Florida is running out of the drug it uses to sedate people during executions. What’s more, the entire supply the state has expires at the end of November. So the Department of Corrections plans to switch to a different medication in the same drug family as Valium and Xanax. It’s called midazolam.

Florida International University law professor Steven Harper, who says his research makes him critical of the death penalty, says, “This has been a drug that they pre-anesthetize people with, but it has not been a drug that they would completely anesthetize somebody with, and certainly it has never been used in a death penalty context.”

Because midazolam hasn’t been used in executions, a challenge has been filed in federal court by a state agency that represents death row inmates after they’re convicted, a Capital Collateral Regional Council. Because Florida injects death row inmates with three different drugs, the council says people could feel extreme pain from the second two drugs if they’re not deeply unconscious from the first.

Harper says, “And the second drug would paralyze somebody, so you couldn’t tell if they were experiencing pain. And that’s why most states are getting away from this three-drug protocol.”

Department of Corrections spokeswoman Misty Cash says the state doesn’t talk about how and why it chooses execution drugs.

“It could interfere or compromise the safety and security of the institution or those involved,” she explains.

She says midazolam is replacing another drug that’s in short supply not only in Florida but also at prisons across the country. Richard Dieter with Death Penalty Research Center, a Washington, D.C.-based organization critical of capital punishment, says the shortage may stem, in part, from the political beliefs of the drugs’ mostly European manufacturers.

“This is involving, of course, our international allies in Europe, who see the death penalty as a violation of human rights, and that’s why they’re imposing these sanctions on us,” he says.

Midazolam, the drug coming to Florida prisons, is commonly used in operating rooms and dental offices.

Florida A&M University College of Pharmacy Dean Michael Thompson says, “A couple of milligrams, [and] the person doesn’t know what’s going on. It allows the physician to do whatever they want to do, whether it’s a colonoscope—whatever it is.”

But he’s quick to add the dosage used in lethal injections is at least 125 times the normal medical dose.

“I’m not aware that a person could receive that much and still be conscious. That’s a lot of drug,” he says.

The drug is scheduled to be used in executions starting Dec. 1. Meanwhile a hearing in the prisoners’ lawsuit is scheduled for November.