Death Row, Where Is Thy Sting? Lethal Injection Drug in Short Supply

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There has perhaps been no better time to be on death row than right now.

A shortage of a key ingredient of the lethal injection cocktail used by prisons is forcing some states to delay scheduled executions until next year. The crucial component, sodium thiopental -- better known as Pentothal -- is an anesthetic that is combined with two other drugs that complete the fatal TKO.

Pentothal is produced by only one pharmaceutical company -- Hospira -- that actually opposes its use in lethal injections. A spokesman told ABC News that the drug's active pharmaceutical agent is supplied by a third party and currently unavailable until early 2011.

"We are working to get it back onto the market for our customers as soon as possible," spokesman Dan Rosenberg wrote in a statement.

Perhaps ironically, among those customers are most of the 35 states where the death penalty is legal. Last week Kentucky was scheduled to use its last remaining dose of Pentothal in the lethal injection of death row inmate Gregory Wilson, but his execution was postponed for legal reasons.

"We have enough dosage to carry out one of the execution protocols," said Jennifer Brislin, a spokeswoman of the Justice and Public Safety Cabinet. "We've been trying to secure [more] since at least March and have been unsuccessful."

Even if his stay comes to an end, Wilson still may be in luck: Kentucky's Pentothal stash has an expiration date of Oct. 1. Aside from Wilson, there are two other inmates on death row in the state whose fates are held in limbo by the shortage.

Oklahoma was compelled to stay the execution of Jeffrey Matthews last month because of a shortage of Pentothal. The state planned to use a different anesthetic in its place, but lawyers for the inmate successfully argued the new drug was "nothing more than experimental."

Even among those who are agnostic on the question of whether the death penalty should be legal, there is an awareness that lethal injection can be an extremely painful way to go if not properly -- pardon the pun -- executed.

Penthothal is the first drug an inmate receives. It is a short-acting rapid-onset barbiturate and general anesthetic that numbs the patient for the double-whammy that follows: a paralyzing agent that shuts down the body's muscular and respiratory systems, and potassium chloride, which stops the heart, causing death by cardiac arrest.

"It is necessary that the first drug work. It eliminates the pain for the next two drugs," said Richard Dieter of the Death Penalty Information Center. "Everybody agrees that two-thirds of this process would be excruciating but for the sodium pentothal."

Dieter, whose organization does not take an ethical stance on the death penalty, stressed that the current shortage of Pentothal is not typical.

"A lot about this issue is absurd," he said. "That you run out of the drug is like being short of rope for a hanging. That is the reality here."

Adding to the absurdity of the situation is the fact that the manufacturer of Pentothal does not condone its use in capital punishment.

"Hospira manufactures this product because it improves or saves lives, and the company markets it solely for use as indicated on the product labeling," said Rosenberg, the company's spokesman. "The drug is not indicated for capital punishment, and Hospira does not support its use in this procedure."

Although Rosenberg said the company has consulted with departments of correction across the country, not one of them reached by ABC News would comment on Hospira's stance.

The American Society of Anesthesiologists similarly declined to comment on the use of Pentothal as an ingredient in lethal injections.

Still, there is one state where it remains an unequivocally unhappy place to be a death row inmate: Texas. Two people are scheduled to be executed by year's end, and the state apparently has plenty of Pentothal.

"We have the drug in reserve," said Michelle Lyons, of the Texas Department of Criminal Justice, "and therefore have enough for the executions currently scheduled."

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