Should Florida use fentanyl to execute Death Row inmates?

Sept 29, 2017
One of the execution chambers at Florida State Prison. Florida Department of Corrections photo

The deadliest drug in the nation’s opioid epidemic — fentanyl — will be used to execute a death row inmate in Nevada in November.

Barring a court order halting the execution, it will be the first time the deadly painkiller will be used in an execution and will be one of three drugs used to execute Scott Raymond Dozier, 46.

Dozier was sentenced to death for killing a 22-year-old man, whose dismembered body was found in a suitcase dumped in a trash bin in Las Vegas in 2002. Police also linked him to another victim, whose dismembered body was found in the Arizona desert.

Dozier asked to be executed in 2016, but the state had no drugs to carry out the execution. Manufacturers of such drugs have begun to refuse to sell the drugs to corrections agencies for use in lethal injections.

Florida used a new three-drug lethal injection cocktail for the first time in an execution in August, but it doesn’t involve fentanyl. A spokeswoman for the state Department of Corrections declined to answer questions about whether Florida is considering using fentanyl.

The Nevada Department of Corrections announced in August that it would use a three-drug formula to execute Dozier with these two other drugs in addition to fentanyl:

Fentanyl is the most powerful opioid painkiller in medicine. It was involved in more than 20,000 of the 64,000 overdose deaths in the United States in 2016, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Florida’s lethal cocktail

Florida changed its drug mixture in January, after running out of midazolam, the first drug administered, which relieves anxiety and causes drowsiness, to sedate the inmate.

The new protocol substitutes etomidate, a short-acting anesthetic sometimes used to treat dislocated joints, for midazolam, which was widely criticized after several botched executions.

According to news reports, Dennis McGuire gasped and convulsed for 10 minutes during his execution in Ohio in January 2014. Six months later in Arizona, Joseph Wood snorted and gulped for two hours. A month later in Oklahoma, Clayton Lockett writhed and groaned for 43 minutes before a fatal heart attack. Ronald Bert Smith Jr. heaved and coughed for 13 minutes during his December 2016 execution in Alabama.

The second drug administered in Florida executions is rocuronium bromide, which induces paralysis. The final drug, potassium acetate, stops the heart.

Florida’s new drug mixture is “compatible with evolving standards of decency that mark the progress of a maturing society, the concepts of the dignity of man and advances in science, research pharmacology and technology,” DOC Secretary Julie L. Jones wrote in a Jan. 4 letter to Gov. Rick Scott.

“The process will not involve unnecessary lingering or the unnecessary or wanton infliction of pain and suffering,” Jones wrote.

Businesses balk

Still, Johnson & Johnson, one of the largest pharmaceutical companies in the world, was not pleased that Florida intended to use etomidate in executions. 

Etomidate was discovered by scientists at Janssen, a division of Johnson & Johnson, but the company has never sold the product in the United States. Etomidate is off-patent and is made by multiple manufacturers.

“Janssen discovers and develops medical innovations to save and enhance lives,” Greg Panico, a spokesman for Janssen wrote in an email to the Boston Globe in August. “We do not condone the use of our medicines in lethal injections for capital punishment.”

Details on how and where Florida obtains the drugs used for lethal injections is not public. Although Florida has a broad public records law, it exempts any record that “identifies an executioner, or any person prescribing, preparing, compounding, dispensing, or administering a lethal injection.”

Florida law further protects those licensed to do so from liability by declaring that prescribing, preparing, compounding, dispensing or administering a lethal injection “does not constitute the practice of medicine, nursing, or pharmacy.”

Mark Asay was executed in Florida on Aug. 24. Asay was convicted by a jury of two racially motivated, premeditated murders in Jacksonville in 1987. (Florida Department of Corrections via AP)

On Aug. 24, Florida used the new combination of drugs in executing Mark Asay, a white supremacist sentenced to death for the racially motivated killing of two men. Asay was the first white man executed in Florida for killing a black victim.

The execution lasted 11 minutes and “took place without incident,” a Department of Correction spokeswoman told reporters.

A reporter who witnessed the execution wrote that Asay “twitched his legs briefly during the first few minutes of the execution procedure and appeared to breathe rapidly before turning ashen.”