The Slatest

It’s Really Hard to Believe How Much of a Disaster the U.S. Lethal Injection System Is

The execution chamber at the Georgia Diagnostic Prison in Jackson, Georgia.

Georgia Department of Corrections/Getty Images

Most informed American citizens are probably familiar with the moral arguments for and against the death penalty. Many are likely aware of the practical fact that some individuals found guilty of capital crimes by our justice system are later exonerated. If you follow the Supreme Court, you also might know that there is ongoing conflict over whether lethal injection is an inherently cruel and unusual punishment. But a story that broke today in Arizona reminds us that there’s another angle of the death penalty issue that’s underdiscussed, which is that on an administrative level—separate from abstract arguments about morality and justice and even from broader practical concerns about the justice system—the United States’ system of carrying out executions is characterized by farcical, embarrassing incompetence and thoughtlessness.


Here are some recent stories about executions in the United States:

  • In January 2014 Louisiana officials reportedly obtained the drug hydromorphone from an in-state hospital pharmacy without telling the hospital that the drug was intended for use in a lethal injection. (According to a source quoted in a prominent story about this incident, Louisiana hospitals are only legally supposed to provide drugs to other institutions if the drugs are going to be given to other hospital patients. In general, many states are having trouble finding execution drugs because pharmaceutical companies are increasingly refusing, for ethical reasons, to supply them.)
  • In April 2014 Oklahoma officials attempting to execute an inmate took 51 minutes to find a suitable vein and still ended up pumping drugs into his tissue rather than his bloodstream, which resulted in a prolonged and chaotic death process in which the inmate actually died after the state had issued orders to stop the execution. 
  • In July 2014 Arizona officials had to use 15 doses of a lethal injection cocktail to kill a prisoner who was expected to die after one dose. (A 2005 article in the Lancet, a British medical journal, found that 43 of 49 executed U.S. inmates that were studied had postmortem anesthesia levels lower than what would be considered adequate for a surgical procedure.)
  • In December 2014 the state of Oklahoma’s death penalty “expert” submitted a 365-page “witness report” about lethal injection drugs—a document that the state later submitted to the Supreme Court—of which 186 pages were printouts from the website The printout itself included’s own legal disclaimer that its contents do not constitute “medical advice.”
  • In January 2015 Oklahoma officials used the wrong drug to kill an inmate, injecting him with potassium acetate rather than the potassium chloride that is called for in the state’s execution protocol. State officials didn’t realize their mistake (or at least didn’t admit it publicly) until October. The wrong drug!
  • In June 2015 Nebraska officials’ efforts to import lethal injection drugs from India were rejected by the Food and Drug Administration.
  • In July 2015 Arizona officials tried to buy a lethal injection drug from a supplier that was not approved by the FDA, forcing federal agents to step in and physically seize $27,000 of unapproved drugs at the Phoenix airport before they could get to the state’s department of corrections.
  • In August 2015 North Carolina passed a law eliminating the requirement that a doctor be present during executions. (This is a not-uncommon way to get around the fact that the American Medical Association’s ethics code says that “a physician … should not be a participant in a legally authorized execution.”)


What kind of slap-dash crap is this for a process that ends with the government killing someone?

Looking across all these examples, a clear picture emerges. Pharmacists and doctors are hesitant to participate in the lethal injection process; officials nonetheless insist that executions will proceed, and they are generally bound by statute to use lethal injection to carry them out. But the people administering the executions often don’t know what they are doing, and there are increasingly few legal methods to obtain the necessary drugs. The result is the government’s most grave responsibility being improvised in the manner of a MacGyver episode if MacGyver were an idiot. And it’s a disgrace.