As Tennessee moves to fire up the execution machine again, it's instructive to look at two states' experiences with executions.
First, in Ohio, the family of Dennis McGuire is suing the state for the manner of his execution. According to an eyewitness accounts of his death, it was particularly brutal.
The lawsuit, filed late Friday, also alleges the drug maker that produced the medications illegally allowed them to be used for an execution and should be prohibited from making them available for capital punishment.
Dennis McGuire "repeated cycles of snorting, gurgling and arching his back, appearing to writhe in pain," the lawsuit said. "It looked and sounded as though he was suffocating."
McGuire's execution Jan. 16 lasted 26 minutes, the longest since the state resumed putting inmates to death in 1999, according to an Associated Press analysis of all 53 execution logs maintained by the Department of Rehabilitation and Correction.
The Scene's sister publication in Kansas City, The Pitch, looked at Missouri's execution method. Because they have passed secrecy laws — like Tennessee — what has received little attention is states like Missouri have turned to compounding pharmacies to mix their lethal injection drugs, thus circumventing a market which has begun cutting off the flow of deadly drugs.
The Pitch reached Apothecary Shoppe CEO Deril Lees on January 20. When asked if the pharmacy had ever supplied Missouri with pentobarbital or had a contract with Missouri, Lees said no.
"There are serious questions about the integrity of the pharmacy," says Tony Rothert, legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Missouri. "If you wanted to buy a drug from an [unlicensed] out-of-state pharmacy for a controlled substance, you'd be put in jail."
Compounding pharmacies, unlike conventional drug makers, exist outside the reach of the stringent federal regulatory framework. They operate in the murky "gray market" of the pharmaceutical industry — theirs is not an illegal black market but one in which a product's origins are untraceable and beyond the watch of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. It's often difficult to determine in advance the potency of a compounding pharmacy's product or whether it's contaminated or impure.
In 2011, the Missouri Board of Pharmacy tested 158 compounded drugs from various pharmacies. It found that 17 percent failed its potency test.
As states struggle to find new ways to kill death row inmates, maybe it's time to ask whether Tennessee should get out of the death penalty business altogether in favor of a cheaper alternative, life in prison without parole.
Tonight: The Vanderbilt Prison Project and Tennessee Students & Educators for Social Justice will host a teach-in at Vanderbilt's Alumni Hall from 5:30-7 p.m. Speakers include Stacy Rector of Tennesseans for Alternatives to the Death Penalty and Ndume Olatushani, who spent two decades on Tennessee's death row for a crime he didn't commit.