U.S. top lawyer calls for greater transparency over execution drugs

By Eric M. Johnson
U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder speaks at the U.S. ambassador's residence in Oslo July 8, 2014. REUTERS/Anette Karlsen/NTB Scanpix

By Eric M. Johnson

(Reuters) - Attorney General Eric Holder is calling on states to be more transparent about the drug cocktails used in executions in the wake of a series of botched lethal injections that have renewed a national debate over the death penalty.

States that impose capital punishment have turned to new suppliers of chemical combinations for lethal injections after European drug makers objected to having their products used for that purpose.

Since then, a number of death row inmates have argued that untested drugs of questionable quality could cause undo harm and suffering in violation of the U.S. Constitution.

A group of death row prisoners sued Arizona in June, saying the secrecy surrounding the drugs used in other failed executions in Ohio and Oklahoma violated constitutional rights.

"There may not be a legal requirement for transparency and talking about, describing the drugs that are used," Holder told PBS NewsHour in a wide-ranging interview on Thursday. "But you sometimes have to go beyond that which is legally required to do something that is right."

"For the state to exercise that greatest of all powers, to end a human life, it seems to me, just on a personal level, that transparency would be a good thing, and to share the information about what chemicals are being used, what drugs are being used," he said, according to a transcript.

After a bungled execution in Oklahoma in which a convicted killer writhed in pain as a needle became dislodged, President Barack Obama asked Holder's Justice Department to look into the situation, which he called "deeply troubling."

Holder, who says he is personally against the death penalty, told PBS that officials with his Civil Rights Division and Criminal Division were looking at the recent state-level complications as well as the U.S. government's protocol even though there has not been a federal execution since 2003.

In Arizona last week, executioners had to administer at least two full doses of a two-drug lethal injection cocktail to a convicted double murderer who gasped and struggled for breath for more than 90 minutes before he finally succumbed.

A death row in Ohio inmate took 25 minutes to die and reportedly convulsed and gasped for breath in January after he was injected with a deadly sedative-painkiller mix of midazolam and hydromorphone, the first such combination used for a lethal injection in the United States.

(Editing by Lisa Von Ahn)