This week, three men on death row in Texas had their executions stopped at the last minute. The reason: vets claim that one of the drugs used in lethal injections is not even fit for killing animals. Alex Hannaford reports.
Billy Vickers had already been driven 40 miles north from the Polunsky correctional unit in the pretty Texas town of Livingston to the Walls Unit in Huntsville. Just before 4pm the 58-year-old career criminal was given his last meal – pork chops and eggs, pan-fried potatoes, a bowl of gravy, toast, vanilla ice cream, root beer and coffee.
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His lawyer Keith Hampton arrived with news that an appeal to stop his execution and review his case had been rejected by the US supreme court. It looked like there would be no last minute reprieve but the veteran death row lawyer wasn’t giving up hope. In a separate action, a lawsuit had been filed on behalf of Vickers and two other Texas death row inmates due to face execution this week, seeking a permanent injunction against lethal injection. The suit claimed one of the chemicals used to carry out executions caused pain and suffering and so was unconstitutional as it constituted a “cruel and unusual punishment”.
While Vickers took a shower and dressed in a clean set of white prison overalls, three media representatives and a handful of other witnesses gathered in a lounge in the northeast corner of the prison close to the death chamber.
Just after 6pm the door of his holding cell was unlocked and the man convicted of the fatal shooting of a north Texas grocery store owner during a botched robbery 11 years ago was taken to another cell next to the death chamber. There he was strapped to a gurney – effectively a bed on wheels with securing straps attached – and intravenous catheters were attached to his arms. Now all he could do was wait.
Executions in Texas are usually over by half past six, but by seven o’clock Vickers was still in the holding cell. The clock ticked away – eight … nine … 10.
At midnight, Vickers was taken by minibus back to the Polunsky unit, commonly known as death row. (A death warrant is only valid from 6pm until midnight for the day it is issued.) He became the first death row inmate to have a death warrant expire since lethal injection was first used in Texas in 1982. If an execution is halted it is usually because of intervention by the governor or courts.
But the bizarre chain of events on Tuesday didn’t stop there; Vickers would be the first of three convicted killers to have their executions stopped in Texas this week.
On Wednesday 42-year-old Kevin Lee Zimmerman, on death row for fatally stabbing a Louisiana oilfield worker 31 times in 1987, was told of his stay of execution less than half an hour before he was due to die.
Bobby Hines, 31, convicted of killing a woman with an ice-pick in her Dallas apartment just over 10 years ago, also received a stay. Although his execution was stopped because his lawyer is claiming mental retardation, there is little doubt he would have received a stay regardless due to the lawsuit claiming the drug in lethal injections causes suffering.
In an interview with Hines three weeks ago he pulled out a cutting from the Austin American Statesman newspaper. “There are some veterinarians here that have discovered that the drug they use to execute us on death row causes pain in animals,” he said, staring at the page. “It’s a muscle relaxant which stops you from screaming out in pain. You can’t acknowledge pain if you’re paralysed. I don’t want to die. I am afraid of dying. I hear people in here all the time saying they’re not afraid to die but I think it’s an ego thing. Twelve years and I ain’t got used to it yet. I think only God has a right to judge. I don’t believe vengeance belongs to man.”
This week’s events in Texas could have huge implications for the death penalty in the United States. Lethal injection is now used throughout the US unless, in certain states, an inmate elects alternative means (electric chair, firing squad, hanging, lethal gas). While it probably won’t stop the use of lethal injection altogether, it will certainly delay its use while the supreme court decides what to do.
A lethal injection consists of sodium thiopental, a barbiturate which sedates the prisoner; pancuronium bromide, a muscle relaxant which also collapses the diaphragm and lungs; and potassium chloride, which stops the heart. The offender is usually pronounced dead around seven minutes after the lethal injection is administered.
The lawsuit in question centres around the use of pancuronium bromide. The American Veterinary Medical Association wants it banned in the killing of animals because it can mask suffering. Ironically, the lawsuit says it is illegal to use the drug to put a pet to sleep in Texas and at least 18 other states.
Jim Marcus, executive director of the Texas Defenders Service, a legal group that represents death row inmates which filed the suit, says the challenge to the lethal injection in its present form is something that is going on around the country. “There is evidence that pancuronium bromide, the neuro-muscular blocking agent, renders a person paralysed but they’re completely sentient and dying a slow death of asphyxiation. Part of the problem is that the initial drug is a short-acting barbiturate. It’s not meant to keep somebody in deep anaesthesia. It’s not meant to put somebody out and that’s why there’s a significant risk. Once the inmate starts to experience respiratory problems from the other drugs that are used, they’re going to wake up. But they won’t be able to move, so from the outside it’s going to look like they are peaceful and serene.
“There are more humane formulations that can be used. It doesn’t need to be this way. We used to hang, electrocute and gas people but we thought we’d found a more humane alternative. We’ve now reached a point where we’ve found that the injection is not something we should be using in its present form.” Marcus also points out that in hospital, to anaesthetise somebody the amount of the drug used is determined by the patient’s weight, age, etc. On death row this doesn’t happen.
He is cautious about being too optimistic about the events this week. The fifth circuit federal court in Texas has refused to hear civil rights suits such as this in the past, and this week’s supreme court decision has called this into question. The supreme court is essentially stalling for time to consider the options. The best Marcus can hope for is a ruling that the lower courts will be forced to hear his case. “This could reopen the courthouse door for us,” Marcus says. “All we’re seeking is access to the courthouse.”
The ruling probably won’t be made until next summer, and so all executions in the US may be delayed until then. “It’s too soon to tell,” Marcus says. “We won’t really know until we get further elucidation from the supreme court. If we get the chance to put forward our evidence then the jury will decide.”
Texas has executed 313 people since the death penalty was reinstated in 1974 – more than any US state. There are 452 inmates on death row.