It is welcome news that the Texas prison system’s supply of the drug used for execution is about to expire, and the state may have trouble replenishing its stash of pentobarbital.
Even if this problem for the state isn’t long-lasting, it gives me a ray of hope that one day lethal injection may go the way of “Old Sparky,” the electric chair used in Texas for 40 years.
When the state took charge of executions (previously relegated to the counties) in 1923, it decided that electrocution, rather than hanging, would be the method used to kill inmates sentenced to death.
Between 1924 and 1964, Texas electrocuted 361.
After reinstatement of the death penalty by the high court, Texas decided to adopt lethal injection for execution, retiring Old Sparky – now housed at the Texas Prison
Museum in Huntsville – and replacing it with a gurney.
Charlie Brooks of Fort Worth became the first person executed in the country by injection.
He was given a threedrug cocktail of sodium thiopental, pancuronium bromide and potassium chloride, a combination the state used until two years ago.
Since Brooks died, Texas has put to death 502 other prisoners (11 this year), far more than any other state in the country.
Although the state doesn’t divulge who supplies its drugs for execution, The Guardian newspaper reported in 2010 that British companies were secretly supplying some American prisons.
In 2011, the maker of sodium thiopental stopped producing the drug under pressure from anti-death penalty supporters, and in 2012 the state could not get access to pancuronium bromide, according to a report by the Houston Chronicle.
Since that time Texas’ lethal injections have been of a single drug, pentobarbital, which is commonly used for euthanizing animals.
The question is, what will the state do if the pentobarbital becomes permanently unavailable?
The fact that pressure on drug manufacturers has had some impact on holding up executions means death penalty opponents now have another weapon in their fight against capital punishment.
While they’ll still fight legislatively and through the courts, it would be a rewarding victory if they can continue to convince drug companies not to supply these death chambers with doses of lethal pharmaceuticals.
It would be a different kind of “war on drugs,” but it would be one worth waging.
Tubing and straps used in the execution of Brooks in 1982 are now in the museum with Old Sparky.
Perhaps it won’t be too long before we can retire the gurney for exhibit purposes only and close Texas’ death chamber for good.
BOB RAY SANDERS is a columnist for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram. Readers may write to him at: 400 W. 7th St., Fort Worth, Texas 76102, or via email at bobraystar-telegram.com.