Tennessee’s governor on Monday put a stop to all executions until the end of the year and launched an inquiry into why the state failed to properly test lethal injection chemicals that were intended to be used on a prisoner last month before allowing them to be used on another prisoner.
Because the medications used to execute that prisoner, Oscar F. Smith, had not been screened for endotoxins, pollutants that may induce unexpected adverse effects if administered, the execution of that prisoner was postponed approximately an hour before it was to take place. Mr. Smith and four other inmates who were due to be executed this year will have their executions temporarily postponed as a result of the moratorium.
The failure to test for the toxins, which experts said could cause respiratory failure or other distressing symptoms before death, was the latest in a long line of mistakes and difficulties for states seeking to carry out the death penalty at a time when lethal drugs are more difficult to obtain, according to experts. The constitutionality of a drug used in executions in several states, including Oklahoma and Tennessee, is currently being considered by a judge in Oklahoma, and South Carolina is preparing to carry out its first execution by firing squad after claiming it could no longer obtain lethal injection drugs.
Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee, a Republican, said on Monday that Ed Stanton, a former federal prosecutor in the state, would oversee an inquiry into why the medications used for lethal injection had not been tested for endotoxins.
Wendy Galbraith, a professor of pharmaceutical sciences at the University of Oklahoma Health Sciences Center, expressed concern that a pharmacist had apparently failed to test the drugs for endotoxins, despite the fact that doing so is a standard part of compounding drugs and takes only about 20 minutes to complete. “This is concerning,” Galbraith said.
Endotoxins, according to Harry Kochat, an expert in pharmaceutical science at the University of Tennessee Health Science Center, are left behind when bacteria are killed and can cause hypotension, respiratory failure, and other catastrophic effects in a matter of minutes, depending on the dose. “Endotoxins are left behind when bacteria are killed,” Kochat says.
Mr. Smith was found guilty of three counts of murder and sentenced to death in 1990 after a jury found him guilty of murdering his estranged wife and two of her children the previous year. Mr. Smith, who is 72 years old and the oldest prisoner on the state’s execution row, has maintained his innocence throughout his life.
Mr. Smith was having communion with his spiritual advisor, the Rev. Matthew Lewis, on April 21, the day before he was due to be killed, when a warden told him that he had been given a last-minute reprieve, according to Mr. Lewis, who spoke at a recent press conference.
Government officials have kept the details of what went wrong with the fatal injection medications under wraps for more than a week, and Mr. Smith’s attorneys have said as late as Friday that they do not understand why he has been given an extension.
Tennessee utilises three medications in executions: one to render a prisoner unconscious, another to cause paralysis, and a third to stop the heart of the inmate being executed. According to the state’s lethal injection handbook, when the state is unable to get the pharmaceuticals from manufacturers and must instead synthesise them, a certified pharmacist must follow established safety standards while compounding the drugs and must test them for potency, sterility, and endotoxins.