2010: Jeffrey Landrigan, thiopentaled

1 comment October 26th, 2016 Headsman

Jeffrey Landrigan was executed in Arizona for murder on this date in 2010 — via an import drug that made his case a recent landmark in the ongoing U.S. tussle over lethal injection.

Landrigan broke out of jail in 1989 where he was serving a second-degree murder sentence and did a first-degree murder in the course of an armed robbery.

By the time this mundanely terrifying killer was ready to face his punishment, U.S. states were beginning to feel the pinch from anti-death penalty activists’ campaign to shut off the supply of a key drug in the lethal injection protocol — sodium thiopental.

Since the very first lethal injections, sodium thiopental has stood as the first of the standard three-drug cocktail: sodium thiopental to induce unconsciousness, pancuronium bromide to inflict muscle paralysis, and potassium chloride to stop the “patient’s” heart.

Sodium thiopental owed this juridical responsibility to its place as the Brand X medical anaesthetic thirty or forty years ago. But in the time since, that medical role has been overtaken by propofol, leaving sodium thiopental ever less frequently manufactured — and exposing a potential vulnerability in the executioner’s supply chain. Death penalty abolitionists targeted that weak point with effect, especially once the last U.S. manufacturer of sodium thiopental, pharma giant Hospira, got out of the game.

Sodium thiopental expires, so states that intend to conduct lethal injection executions couldn’t really stockpile. Instead, they have two options:

  • Find a new source for sodium thiopental; or,
  • Find a new lethal injection procedure

In the past few years, those laboratories of democracy known as state legislatures have experimented promiscuously with re-jiggering the lethal injection to account for the inhospitable thiopental climate with the upshot that there no longer remains one standard lethal injection protocol, but multiple mutations innovated and cribbed state by state — and each mutation is liable to change again without warning in response to the next setback.

This ongoing drama has played out throughout the 2010s, but it so happened that Landrigan’s long road to death reached its end about where the scarce thiopental story began.

In Arizona’s case at the comparatively early date of 2010 — back when Hospira had already suspended domestic thiopental manufacture — the gap was filled by requisitioning the drug from an overseas supplier.

Easy enough, one might suppose: C11H17N2NaO2S is C11H17N2NaO2S no matter its brand label.

But it turns out that the production and the import of medical drugs are regulated by the Food and Drug Administration, and neither Arizona nor the fly-by-night British pharmaceutical maker it contracted had bothered satisfying the paperwork requirements. Landrigan’s appellate lawyers fastened on this failure, arguing that the state’s calculated ignorance of its drug’s purity was inviting a painful botch.

Landrigan’s story and the larger lethal injection crisis into which it fits was the subject of the very first episode of the popular podcast More Perfect — whose beat is the U.S. Supreme Court.

That institution had a low moment in this drama interceding at the 11th hour to okay Landrigan’s execution after a Kafkaesque legal shell game in which Arizona repeatedly ignored lower courts’ orders to supply documentation about its proposed execution drug, then argued — and won the argument! — that the prisoner’s lawyers were only speculating that the drug might be impure or harmful and couldn’t prove any problem. Try that one out on your customs officer the next time you get pinched carrying contraband at the border. A Ninth Circuit Court judge punished bad faith with a stay of execution, but the high court reversed that stay on a 5-4 vote this very October 26, allowing Landrigan’s execution hours later.

“The state flatly stonewalled the lower courts by defying orders to produce information, and then was rewarded at the Supreme Court by winning its case on the basis that the defendant had not put forward enough evidence,” Hofstra law professor Eric Freedman lamented to the New York Times. “That is an outcome which turns simple justice upside-down and a victory that the state should be ashamed to have obtained.” It’s a line that mirrors the critique exasperated death penalty advocates have leveled against their foes for suing to block “cruel and unusual” executions on the back of drug supply kinks that they themselves engineered.

The messy resolution of Landrigan’s own case was very far from a solution to the underlying dilemma. In the years since, European manufacturers have themselves been squeezed out of the lethal injection supply chain by anti-death penalty pressure, while the states’ various adaptations have worked themselves out in a mess of litigation and human experimentation. It’s a story still being written — into the very flesh, sometimes, of men like Jeffrey Landrigan.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 21st Century,Arizona,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,History,Lethal Injection,Murder,Ripped from the Headlines,USA

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2011: Martin Link

Add comment February 9th, 2011 Headsman

Minutes past midnight today, Central Daylight Time, Martin Link died by lethal injection at Missouri’s Bonne Terre state prison.

It’s just Missouri’s second execution since 2005, a marked decline from its five-per-year clip over the decade preceding.*

Condemned for raping and murdering an 11-year-old girl in 1991, Link “showed little willingness to fight the death penalty,” according to the Kansas City Star. (Not so little that he actually dropped appeals, mind.) He at least once attempted suicide in prison.

In common with many present-day U.S. executions, Link’s was also shaped by the nationwide shortage of sodium thiopental, one of the essential drugs in the traditional lethal injection cocktail.

(It’s an anesthetic, the first of three drugs administered and used for the purpose of inducing rapid unconsciousness so the other two can get to the killing business … though the sodium thiopental dose is itself potentially lethal, and some states have experimented with lethal injections using only that one drug.)

While other thiopental-scarce jurisdictions have moved towards alternative chemicals and injection procedures, Missouri did a classic three-drug injection using some of its dwindling stockpile — which was due to expire on March 1, anyway. What the plan might be for the next Show-Me State execution, whenever that might be, nobody seems ready to say. If recent trends are any indication, they’ve got plenty of time to work it out.

The chemical compounds, no doubt, were the last things on the minds of those directly concerned. Both the victim’s family and the investigating police officers reportedly planned to observe the procedure with some satisfaction.

“It was such a horrendous crime,” one of the officers told a reporter. “I’ve got a picture of that in my mind right now … of seeing the little girl and everything. It’s kind of hard to put it out of your mind.”

* Stats per the Death Penalty Information Center’s very handy execution database.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 21st Century,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Disfavored Minorities,Execution,Kidnapping,Lethal Injection,Missouri,Murder,Racial and Ethnic Minorities,Rape,Ripped from the Headlines,USA

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