Drop gas chamber and drugs in favor of life in prison

10/10/2013 5:51 PM

10/16/2013 12:09 AM

Missouri’s decision to return an anesthesia drug mistakenly delivered to the Department of Corrections for the purpose of executing prisoners may have postponed an international incident. And believe me, that is something we really want to avoid.

But the problems caused by the state’s insistence on continuing with the death penalty are far from resolved.

Missouri plans to execute inmate Allen Nicklasson on Oct. 23 by injecting him with an overdose of propofol, a drug used in the majority of surgeries in the United States.

The state turned to the use of propofol after drug manufacturers balked at supplying some of the ingredients of the “three-drug cocktail” formerly used by Missouri and other states in the execution business.

But the makers of propofol aren’t keen on seeing their product used to kill people, either. After a distribution glitch ended up with a supply of propofol being sent to the prison in Bonne Terre, Mo., last year, the supplier pleaded with the Department of Corrections to send it back.

“Please please please HELP,” someone from the supplier, Morris & Dickson of Louisiana, emailed to corrections officials last year. “This system failure — a mistake — is going to affect thousands of Americans.”

Millions, actually.

The drug that ended up in Missouri state custody was manufactured by Fresenius Kabi of Germany, which produces 85 percent of the more than 50 million vials of propofol used in the United States annually. Its exports are overseen by the European Union, which prohibits companies from sending products to overseas markets where they may be used for executions.

An announcement this week that the Department of Corrections had finally returned the propofol is not the end of the story.

Missouri is still sitting on a quantity of the drug produced by Hospira, a U.S. drug maker. Hospira now says it wants its supply returned. And Fresenius Kabi warned that any use of propofol for executions could prompt shipping delays or diminished supplies from Europe.

Gov. Jay Nixon has refused to cancel the Oct. 23 execution, saying objections to the planned method are a matter for the courts. Nicklasson’s lawyer has asked the Missouri Supreme Court for a stay.

So that’s where we are, with Nixon and Missouri Attorney General Chris Koster, both Democrats, insisting on using a drug meant to help people as an agent of death.

This is not the way we want to keep up with Texas.

Officials there executed an inmate Wednesday night, using a single dose of a drug, pentobarbital, that it obtained from a compounding pharmacy. The pharmacy had asked the state to return the supply. Texas officials refused and say they plan to use the pentobarbital on hand to carry out executions for the rest of the year.

Apparently frustrated by the continued delays caused by the drug controversies, Koster and another ambitious politician, Republican state Sen. Kurt Schaefer, have put forth a despicable alternative: return to the use of the gas chamber to kill people.

No form of murder is easy to contemplate. But the gas chamber’s history as a means of genocide makes the idea of a state using it to execute even a single human being altogether reprehensible.

The answer to Missouri’s execution quandary is staring leaders in the face. Life in prison without parole is sufficient punishment for the worst of crimes. It removes the threat to public safety, eliminates the dreadful possibility of executing an innocent person and spares the costs and trauma of years of appeals.

Instead of conjuring even more awful ways to kill people, the governor and lawmakers should have a serious discussion about ending executions altogether, beginning with the one scheduled for this month.

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