When a chemist named Armin Walser helped invent a sedative more powerful than Valium more than 40 years ago, he thought his team’s concoction was meant to make people’s lives easier, not their deaths.
Yet decades after the drug, known as midazolam, entered the market, a product more often used during colonoscopies and cardiac catheterizations has become central to executions around the country and the debate that surrounds capital punishment in the United States.
“I didn’t make it for the purpose,” Dr. Walser, whose drug has been used for sedation during 20 lethal injections nationwide, said in an interview at his home here. “I am not a friend of the death penalty or execution.”
Midazolam’s path from Dr. Walser’s laboratory into use in at least six of the country’s execution chambers has been filled with secrecy, political pressure, scientific disputes and court challenges.
The most recent controversy is the extraordinary plan in Arkansas to execute eight inmates in 10 days next month. The state is racing the calendar: Its midazolam supply will expire at the end of April, and given the resistance of manufacturers to having the drug used in executions, Arkansas would most likely face major hurdles if it tried to restock.
It was a matter of years before midazolam went from being part of a backup procedure in a single state to a crucial drug in at least six, as prison systems increasingly struggled to buy the barbiturates they had long used to sedate prisoners for executions. In 2013, Florida added midazolam to its execution protocol and became the first state to carry out an execution involving the drug.
“The way executions have proceeded in the United States has been, in a sense, through the herd mentality: One state does something and it appears to work, and others hop on board,” said Robert Dunham, the executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center, a research group.
Most executions involving midazolam drew little sustained criticism, but problems emerged during some. In Ohio, a murderer’s execution took longer than previous injection-induced deaths in the state. Testifying later in Federal District Court in connection with a lawsuit over Ohio’s lethal injection protocol, a reporter said the prisoner had been “coughing, gasping, choking in a way that I had not seen before at any execution.”
Midazolam was also used in an execution in Oklahoma that state officials said had gone awry because of an improperly placed intravenous line. Critics said the episode still proved the inadequacy of midazolam’s effectiveness during lethal injections.
And in Arizona, the execution of Joseph R. Wood III took nearly two hours, long enough that a federal judge was holding an emergency hearing about the matter at the moment Mr. Wood died.
Proponents also acknowledge that midazolam is far from a drug of choice for executions, but they blame abolitionists for effectively leaving states with limited choices.
“No state would use it if they could get the barbiturates,” said Kent S. Scheidegger, the legal director of the Criminal Justice Legal Foundation. “The opponents have created the situation where states are forced to use a drug that is not the optimum.”
UPDATE: A good article (3/20/17) on what exactly can go wrong when you piggyback executions in order to "get the job done":
Mr. Lockett’s execution is a cautionary tale, not only about the failures of midazolam as an execution drug, but also about the perils of performing executions back to back. Oklahoma had planned to execute an inmate named Charles Warner the same day as Mr. Lockett, but canceled the second execution after the disastrous outcome of the first.
Investigators from the Oklahoma Department of Public Safety subsequently interviewed the execution team and found that several of them commented on “the feeling of extra stress” for all staff created by scheduling two executions on the same day. The state’s report recommended that executions not be scheduled within seven calendar days of one another “due to manpower and facility concerns.”
If Arkansas were to heed the warning of Oklahoma’s investigators, it would schedule its eight executions over two months. Instead, Arkansas’s execution team, which has not performed an execution in over a decade and has never performed an execution with midazolam, faces a daunting and relentless schedule of two executions per day, repeated four times over 11 days. The pressure on the team will be immense, and it will make mistakes more likely in a situation in which there is no margin for error.