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Why Are Execution Drugs So Controversial? SMU Law Professor Explains

Doualy Xaykaothao
SMU Criminal law professor Meghan J. Ryan says it's difficult to challenge executions when lawyers don't know what drugs are being used in lethal injections.

Texas plans to execute its next death row inmate on May 13 despite a controversial botched execution in Oklahoma using a three-drug cocktail. SMU criminal law professor Meghan Ryan sat down with KERA to discuss why Texas uses a single lethal dose of pentobarbital, but reportedly stocks midazolam, one of the drugs used in Oklahoma. 

Interview Highlights: Meghan Ryan...

... on Texas reportedly stocking vials of midazolam: "The Department of Corrections in Texas says it's not currently using it, but Texas apparently has stockpiled some drugs, the same drugs used in Oklahoma. ... They really don't have to get permission to use it."  

... on the shortage of lethal injection drugs: "Because European countries generally are opposed to capital punishment, they've stopped giving the drugs, or selling the drugs. ... States have used a variety of strategies to try to continue carrying out lethal injection, one of which is using different drugs. Another related strategy is obtaining drugs from compounding facilities, which are facilities that make something close to the drug, but you don't really know what the exact composition of those drugs are."

... on challenging the constitutionality of using lethal injection drugs: "It's difficult for offenders and their attorneys to challenge ... if you don't know what it is. Another problem: One might interpret this as states experimenting on humans. They're essentially using drugs that have not been used before, in this way, to kill people, not knowing what the consequences will be."

... on why people should care that criminals are executed by these drugs: "There's a lot of sentiment around saying, 'People who are on death row did horrible crimes and they deserve to die, but they don't deserve punishment beyond that.' Where do we draw the line between sanctioned death -- where's the line between that and torture? Once you move beyond the pain that is necessarily associated with killing someone, it's unconstitutional." 

Doualy Xaykaothao is a newscaster and reporter for NPR, based in Culver City. She returned to NPR for this role in 2018, and is responsible for writing, producing, and delivering national newscasts. She also reports on breaking news stories for NPR.