According to lawyers for condemned inmate Cleve Foster, the Texas Department of Criminal Justice has been illegally purchasing lethal injection drugs. According to the attorneys, Maurie Levin of UT School of Law, and Sandra Babcock of Northwestern University School of Law, the state's prison agency has been purchasing controlled substances – including drugs used for lethal injections – under the Drug Enforcement Administration registration certificate assigned to an entity that hasn't existed for nearly 30 years. "[A]s a result, we believe that TDCJ is unlawfully in possession of an unlawfully dispensing controlled substances," the lawyers wrote in a letter to U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder.Fascinating. The issue of physician participation in capital punishment is an old and vexed one; I wonder if this is happening because UTMB would not let TDCJ secure execution drugs under their pharmacy license? I can't think of another situation where a controlled substance would be authorized by non-physicians or maintained by un-registered, non-pharmacist handlers.
The problem, it appears, is that TDCJ has been purchasing controlled substances under a registration number assigned to the system's Huntsville Unit Hospital, which, it turns out, has been closed since 1983. TDCJ medical services are provided by the UTMB, and although the med system has "numerous DEA registration numbers, none of them is actually registered to either the Huntsville Unit," which has been purchasing the drugs, or to the address listed on the registration. "DEA Registration numbers must be renewed every three years," write the lawyers, who are representing Foster, scheduled to be executed April 5. "Assuming the DEA registration number used by TDCJ last month to purchase controlled substances was one originally issued to the Huntsville Unit Hospital, TDCJ has failed, on information and belief, to advise the DEA for the past twenty-eight years of the fact that the Huntsville Unit Hospital no longer exists," and that what actually exists at that location is a prison unit with a warden that is "purchasing and dispensing controlled substances" with a number "registered to a nonexistent entity."
Uh-oh. That doesn't sound so good. And neither does this: According to the lawyers, it appears that the drugs aren't being kept at a pharmacy or by a DEA-registered handler. "At no point is an appropriately licensed or authorized practitioner involved in the dispensing process, and at no point is a prescription written to transfer the controlled substances to a member of the execution team," the lawyers write.
Even if TDCJ changes their DEA registration to an active entity, that won't resolve questions about the drugs already obtained. There are seven executions scheduled so far this year, with one set for next week; I wouldn't be surprised to see executions postponed over this.
I am not personally a death penalty abolitionist. But even I can see that the faux medicalization of capital punishment through lethal injection is mainly a public-relations ploy, allowing the state to pretend executions are somehow a medical procedure analogous to others performed by healers instead of premeditated, calculated killing. (Consider the absurdist vanity of sterilizing the injection site with alcohol before administering lethal drugs.) The firing squad, hanging, guillotine, even a single bullet to the back of the head would all work just as well. Indeed, a strong argument can be made that a firing squad or bullet to the head may be more "humane." But those methods of killing are messy and difficult to watch, while killing via lethal injection gives the practice a veneer of professionalism and decorum that makes it more acceptable to a squeamish public.
Barring torture and/or intentional prolonging of suffering, IMO the method of killing is far less important than the decision to kill itself, by whatever means. The punishment for murder is the same, after all, whether one uses a knife, gun, garrote, or pushes their victim off the top of a tall building. Similarly, I don't see why it makes much difference how the state kills people it plans to execute, which is why it doesn't seem worth it for the TDCJ to violate federal laws governing controlled substances just to keep the death-house machinery up and running.