Lawyers for Herbert Smulls, a convicted murderer in Missouri, challenged the compound drug he was due to be given, but the Supreme Court overturned his stay of execution. A district court had ruled that Missouri had made it “impossible” for Smulls “to discover the information necessary to meet his burden.” In other words, he was condemned to die and there was nothing that attorneys could do because of the secrecy.
Smulls was executed Wednesday.
Missouri, which has put three men to death in three months, continues shrouding significant details about where the drugs are manufactured and tested. In December, a judge at the 8th U.S. Circuit of Appeals wrote a scathing ruling terming Missouri’s actions as “using shadow pharmacies hidden behind the hangman’s hood.”
States have long taken measures to protect the identities of guards and medical personnel directly involved with carrying out death penalty convictions. That is a sensible protection. But Missouri claims the pharmacy and the testing lab providing the drugs are also part of the unnamed “execution team.”
That’s a stretch. And the reasoning is less about protecting the firm and more about protecting the state’s death penalty from scrutiny.
European manufacturers no longer want to be involved in the U.S. market for killing people. So they have cut off exports of their products to U.S. prisons.
First, sodium thiopental, a key to a long-used lethal injection cocktail became unavailable. Next, the anesthetic propofol was no longer available. At one point, Missouri was in a rush to use up its supply before the supply reached its expiration date.
Next, the state decided to switch to pentobarbital.
So, along with many of the more than 30 states that have the death penalty, Missouri is jumping to find new drugs, chasing down new ways to manufacture them.
For those who glibly see no problem here, remember that the U.S. Constitution protects its citizens from “cruel and unusual punishment.” But attorneys for death row inmates are finding they can’t legally test whether a new compounded drug meets that standard because key information is being withheld. Besides, we citizens have a right to know how the death penalty is carried out.
All of this adds to the growing case against the death penalty, showing it as a costly and irrational part of the criminal justice system. We know the threat of it is not a deterrent. We know it is far more costly to litigate than seeking sentences for life with no parole. We know extensive appeals are excruciating for the families of murder victims. And we know that some of society’s most unrepentant, violent killers somehow escape it.
And now we’ve got states going to extremes to find the drugs — and hide information about how they got then — just to continue the killing.