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States are stockpiling lethal injection drugs that could be used to save lives

Study shows four states that adhere to capital punishment are hoarding stashes of medicines that could otherwise treat patients in life-or-death procedures

Death penalty states, including Arkansas which will carry out a double execution on Thursday should the courts give the go-ahead as part of an unprecedented week-long killing spree, are stockpiling vital drugs for lethal injections that could be used in tens of thousands of potentially life-saving medical operations, a new study has found.

The study looks at just four of America’s 31 states that still adhere to capital punishment and finds that they are hoarding sufficient stashes of medicines to treat 11,257 patients in surgeries and other possibly life-or-death procedures, for executions. Were the findings from Arkansas, Arizona, Mississippi and Virginia extrapolated to the rest of the country, the number of operations that could be supported by the drugs would reach into the tens of thousands.

Several of the medicines are officially in short supply, with hospitals finding it increasingly difficult to lay their hands on them. As a result, doctors are making compromises in their care choices that are only being intensified by US prisons redirecting the chemicals towards the death chamber.

“The public must realize that when states take these vital drugs and repurpose them as poison and use them to kill, there are serious consequences,” said Dr Joel Zivot, an anesthesiologist at Emory University hospital in Atlanta, Georgia. “People don’t appreciate that these drugs might one day be needed for their own medical treatment.”

One of the four states reviewed by the study, Arkansas, has embarked on a rapid-fire schedule of executions this month that has been decried as a “conveyor-belt of death”. The Republican governor, Asa Hutchinson, initially planned eight killings in 11 days, but after local and federal courts imposed stays in three of the cases the state now intends to kill five inmates in a single week.

According to the study overseen by Zivot, Arkansas has stockpiled sufficient supplies of the three drugs to treat 1,800 patients in potentially life-saving operations. Instead, it is determined to redirect them to putting at least five men to death.

On Thursday, two prisoners, Ledell Lee and Stacey Johnson, are scheduled to die at 7pm and 8.15pm respectively, though both executions are currently on hold at the behest of courts. The state plans to follow up next Monday by killing Marcel Williams and Jack Jones, and on 27 April it will be the turn of Kenneth Williams.

An army of lawyers deployed by the Arkansas attorney general’s office is locked in an epic struggle with public defenders representing the five remaining condemned men in multiple ongoing court proceedings over whether or not they should die. On Wednesday, the state supreme court ruled to halt Johnson’s execution, saying that he should have a chance to prove his innocence with more DNA testing. Further legal challenges are ongoing, and the tussle is almost certain to end later on Thursday at the door of the US supreme court, which was similarly engaged on Monday night when it declined to allow the execution of Don Davis to go ahead.

The death row inmates facing the gurney in Arkansas have already petitioned the US supreme court, calling on the nation’s highest judicial panel on Wednesday to reinstate an earlier federal court ruling that put their executions on hold on grounds that they could be exposed to cruel and unusual punishment. That ruling was later overturned by the eighth circuit court of appeals.

Maya Foa, the director of the human rights group Reprieve that has led the campaign to stop life-saving drugs reaching US death chambers, said: “It is deeply perverse that departments of corrections across the US are sitting on shortage medicines that could be used to save hundreds of patients’ lives.

“As if this hoarding wasn’t dangerous enough, Arkansas has further undermined public health by introducing an ‘execution secrecy’ law which creates serious risks of drug diversion, counterfeiting, and contamination.”

➤ Click here to read the full article

Source: The Guardian, Ed Pilkington, April 20, 2017

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