SOUTH DAKOTA – Death penalty delay looms

april, 17, source :

A federal judge’s ruling in March that the Food and Drug Administration allowed unapproved tranquilizing drugs into the country might delay an execution in South Dakota. But it is not likely to ultimately imperil the death penalty here or in 33 other states.

South Dakota Attorney General Marty Jackley acknowledged the planned September execution of Rodney Berget might be postponed as the state and federal government work their way through the ramifications of U.S. District Court Judge Richard Leon’s ruling regarding the drug sodium thiopental.

Berget was sentenced to death after he and two other inmates were convicted of killing prison guard Ron Johnson during an escape attempt last year at the South Dakota State Penitentiary.

South Dakota is among the states that administer thiopental as a tranquilizer in a series of lethal drugs that also paralyze the lungs and stop the heart. However, U.S. drug companies stopped making thiopental several years ago, leaving an Italian company as the only source for the drug.

The Italian government this year barred the thiopental made there from being used in executions, so American states that use the drug are forced to rely on their existing stockpiles. Now, though, the FDA, is being forced to go after those state stockpiles.

In a federal lawsuit brought by death penalty opponents, Leon ruled the FDA disregarded its responsibility to ensure the safety of imported drugs when it allowed Italian thiopental to be brought into this country.

In response to that, the FDA sent South Dakota a letter April 6 telling it “to make arrangements for the return to the FDA of any foreign-manufactured thiopental in its possession.”

Jackley has refused. He sent a letter back the following day saying the state’s thiopental already has cleared customs and been independently tested to ensure it was pure and adequately potent. He invited the FDA to work with the state on further testing if it has concerns about the thiopental in South Dakota’s hands.

But Jackley is walking a careful middle ground. While acknowledging the FDA’s authority to oversee drugs, he is not ceding the state’s right to have a death penalty.

“The state’s position is we have a duty to carry out a judge’s sentence and to serve justice on behalf of a victim’s family. We would hope the federal agencies appreciate that position and work with us to ensure that carrying out the courts’ sentences is done in a constitutional manner,” Jackley said.

While Berget’s scheduled execution probably could be postponed while the drug issue plays out, the May 13 planned execution of Eric Robert, Berget’s accomplice, already has been pushed back by a state Supreme Court review of his mandatory appeal.

Other inmates on the state’s death row, Donald Moeller, convicted in 1992 of rape and murder, and Charles Rhines, also convicted of murder in 1992, have appeals ongoing and no execution dates have been set for them, according to Jackley.

In the short term, states probably can get around the thiopental issue by resorting to other drugs.

“Twelve states that I am aware of have switched to pentobarbital,” said Richard Dieter, executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center in Washington, D.C.

Jackley notes South Dakota’s death penalty statute is written to give the state wide latitude in the drugs it uses to carry out executions. But Dieter and Joan Fisher, a federal defense lawyer in Sacramento, Calif., who founded a pioneering death penalty defense unit in Idaho, suggest the same problem with access in the case of thiopental ultimately could arise with pentobar bital.

Like thiopental, it now is manufactured only overseas.

“This does underscore the fact the U.S. is dependent on overseas for certain drugs. That’s a larger problem,” Dieter said.

“Things are changing so quickly on us it’s hard to keep up with state corrections departments,” Fisher said of the ability of states to use new execution drugs and thereby evade defense attorney arguments that the drugs are not being appropriately regulated by the FDA.

However, while she admits the current furor over thiopental is merely “a speed bump” in blocking executions, she differs with Jackley on the larger issue. Death penalty foes and defense lawyers might find challenges over execution drugs a fertile field for lawsuits, said Fisher.

“I suspect there is the potential for more litigation than the attorney general would like,” she said.


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