May 3, 2022 - News

Tennessee launches lethal execution investigation

Photo illustration: Allie Carl/Axios. Photo: Bloomberg via Getty Images

Prison officials failed to conduct required testing on the chemicals that were to be used in a planned lethal injection last month, according to Gov. Bill Lee's office.

  • Lee put executions on hold for the rest of the year so a former federal prosecutor could be brought in to root out "operational failures" at the Tennessee Department of Correction.

Why it matters: Tennessee's lethal injection protocol has been scrutinized for years, but the state has remained steadfast in its defense of capital punishment.

Driving the news: The step-by-step process for lethal injections requires officials to test the chemicals used for potency, sterility and endotoxins.

  • Endotoxins are pieces of bacteria that can have significant medical effects. Lee's office said an endotoxin test was not conducted before Oscar Franklin Smith's planned lethal injection last month.
  • The investigation will consider the testing lapse, the process' guiding manual and TDOC staffing.

For the record: Lee said he learned about the testing issue the day of the execution.

  • "I review each death penalty case and believe it is an appropriate punishment for heinous crimes," he said in a statement.
  • "However, the death penalty is an extremely serious matter, and I expect the [TDOC] to leave no question that procedures are correctly followed."

State of play: Tennessee currently uses a three-drug combination for lethal injections.

  • A sedative is administered first, followed by a paralytic and then a drug that stops the heart. Much of the legal debate has centered on if the sedative blocks pain.
  • Because most drug manufacturers don't provide their products for executions, the chemicals typically used are versions mixed together in a compounding pharmacy.

Between the lines: "For compounded pharmaceuticals, we needed a greater opportunity to test these preparations and ensure that they're fit for use," James Ruble, an associate professor at the University of Utah College of Pharmacy, tells Axios.

  • Skipping the endotoxin test "would not allow us to determine if they are fit for their intended use, and as such could lead to a cruel or unusual punishment," says Ruble, who has testified in trials regarding Tennessee's lethal injection protocol.
  • "It could raise constitutional issues."

What they're saying: "Gov. Lee’s decision to pause executions pending an independent review of Tennessee’s lethal injection protocol shows great leadership," federal public defender Kelley Henry said in a statement.

  • "The use of compounded drugs in the context of lethal injection is fraught with risk. The failure to test for endotoxins is a violation of the protocol."

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