Both the federal supply of pentobarbital and Arizona’s cache of the poison were obtained in secrecy. A recent investigation by The Guardian revealed the state’s stock arrived in unmarked bottles and boxes, from a vendor not revealed to the public, with a $1.5 million dollar price tag. Other states, too, are pursuing the drug.
While a Federal District Court judge ruled last summer that injecting lethal chemicals without physicians’ prescriptions violated the Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act, the court declined to order a remedy or relief on the grounds that no harm could be demonstrated and the execution of Keith Nelson went forward. If the courts believe that drug regulations don’t necessarily apply to killing drugs, it’s difficult to determine how anyone would know if the particular batch deployed was defective or expired, or how those flaws would affect inmates. The only people who could helpfully remark on the experience are dead.
Is it cruel to kill a person with this drug, in this era, in this particular way? Does it matter that we can’t know with any certainty, and that what we do know suggests the possibility of suffering not unlike death by drowning? Is it bad for us, as a people, to be reduced to assenting to the best kind of cruelty we can conjure, as opposed to permitting no cruelty at all?
I have seen a person poisoned to death by pentobarbital. It isn’t still, it isn’t a peaceful drifting. Someone hiding behind a wall introduces a chemical into the vein of the prisoner strapped to a gurney, helpless, as witnesses on three sides watch through glass as the prisoner dies, heaving for breath.
In his essay on cruelty, Montaigne quotes Seneca lamenting “that a man should kill a man, not being angry, not in fear, only for the sake of the spectacle.” It’s hard to think of a more fitting indictment of the American practice of execution.
If the law fails to conform to justice and Mr. Brnovich is able to set execution dates for the souls eligible for killing on Arizona’s death row, history will record that he did so using a legally dubious drug protocol that is most likely agonizing, that he did it for the sheer spectacle of it and that Mr. Barr and Mr. Trump showed him the way.
Elizabeth Bruenig (@ebruenig) is an Opinion writer.
The Times is committed to publishing a diversity of letters to the editor. We’d like to hear what you think about this or any of our articles. Here are some tips. And here’s our email: email@example.com.