With execution dates now set for two men on death row in Missouri, the state is on track to be the first to use the drug propofol for the administering of the death penalty. Propofol, a sedative thrust into the spotlight with the death of Michael Jackson, is unchartered territory when it comes to capital punishment and some critics are now raising concerns about whether the drug has been properly vetted and is an appropriate execution method.
"Missouri is about to use a new drug that no other state has used, that has never been used in executions," Richard Dieter, executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center, tells Daily RFT, adding, "You never want to experiment with humans."
One of the subjects of this so-called "experiment" will be Joseph Franklin, a convicted serial killer and white supremacist who famously shot Hustler publisher Larry Flynt, allegedly because he was enraged about the appearance of an interracial couple in the magazine.
See also: - Joseph Franklin, Serial Killer Who Shot Larry Flynt, Gets Execution Date in Missouri - Attorney General Wants Execution Dates For Two Men On Death Row - Chris Koster Says Gas Chamber May Be Only Option Due To Legal Battles
As we reported last week, the Missouri Supreme Court has granted the state's motion to set execution dates for two men who have exhausted appeals of their death sentences. Attorney General Chris Koster, who has been pushing for these executions for several years, announced that Franklin will be executed on November 20, 2013, and Allen Nicklasson, another convicted killer on death row, will be executed on October 23, 2013.
Koster renewed the call for these dates earlier this summer, arguing that the courts cannot keep delaying due to pending federal litigation -- and noting that the state's limited supply of propofol is set to expire. Further delays, he threatened, could force Missouri to resort to the decades-old method of the gas chamber.
The court's latest action has prompted advocates critical of the death penalty to newly scrutinize the drug Missouri could likely use within just two months.
"Some explanation would be helpful for the public and certainly for the defendants who are about to be executed," says Dieter, who heads the nonprofit death penalty group that raises awareness and tracks capital punishment across the country.
The group, he says, wants to know "whether it's all going to be humane and proper...or whether they are just going ahead because they don't want these drugs to expire..."
"Has this been well-vetted?" he continues. "Who have they consulted with that are experts?... What are the adverse reactions? What kind of people are allergic to this? How long would it take? What would be the dosage? What might be the experience?"
Missouri, he argues, is saying, "'We've picked it. Trust us.'"
Propofol got national attention in the aftermath of Michael Jackson's death, a result of an apparently lethal dose of the drug provided by his doctor. According to an ABC News report, propofol is typically administered to patients undergoing surgery or another medical procedure and is a fast-acting drug that makes patients unconscious within seconds. It's very potent and sometimes referred to as the "milk of amnesia."
Incidentally, just this past week, Jackson's ex-wife testified that he twice used propofol as a sleep aid in the 1990s.
Continue for more about the debate in Missouri, including response from the attorney general's office.
In the context of Missouri's potential use of propofol, the Death Penalty Information Center has warned of possible troubling consequences of the improper administration of the drug.
With capital punishment, Dieter argues, doctors with a high-level of expertise in the use of propofol may not be present. "That's putting this into the hands of those with less experience."
Zink et al v. Lombardi, the federal case challenging Missouri's execution protocol, has a trial set for October 5, 2013, just two-and-a-half weeks before the first scheduled execution. It remains to be seen whether the plaintiffs in this case -- which include Franklin and Nicklasson -- will be able to delay the death penalty once again, with the help of the federal courts.
Nanci Gonder, spokeswoman for the attorney general's office, says in a statement to Daily RFT: "The Department of Corrections has adopted a single-drug execution protocol using propofol. We believe the protocol equally meets constitutional standards as the previous three-drug method, upheld by the United States Supreme Court."
States across the country are exploring unprecedented methods, Dieter notes. That's because manufacturers of the most common execution drug recently stopped selling it for use in executions -- and supplies have run out.
Dieter argues that courts will have to determine whether the new options, like propofol, meet the minimum criteria for a humane process and preserve basic constitutional protections.
"I really don't know where all of this is going to go," he says, "but we're about to find out what states have come up with."