By Kyle Mannisi, Opinions Editor
A high-ranking corrections officer, armed with an envelope stuffed with thousands in cash, secretly meets with a pharmaceutical representative in an undisclosed location. The officer hands over the sealed envelope, and the representative provides him with several vials of a deadly and dangerous drug.
No, this is not a scene from “Breaking Bad” or a Quentin Tarantino crime thriller. This is exactly how the state of Missouri has been acquiring Pentobarbital, the controversial drug used in the last 17 state-sanctioned death row executions. The drug does have legitimate medical applications, as it has been used extensively as an effective anti-seizure medication in the developing world, though highly concentrated and purified versions of the drug will cause significant suppression of bodily functions and brain death.
A damning BuzzFeed investigation by Chris McDaniel has exposed the St. Louis-based pharmacy, Foundation Care, for engaging in countless hazardous and often unethical pharmaceutical procedures. Since 2014, more than $135,000 in cash has been paid by the Missouri Department of Corrections for Pentobarbital to Foundation Care, a troubled Earth City pharmacy that was acquired last year by healthcare giant Centene Corporation.
Foundation Care is what is known as a “compounding pharmacy,” meaning the company sells and produces both highly specialized drugs and common mass-produced medications in the same facility. This designation is important because the FDA has significantly limited consumer protection oversight into these types of pharmacies. However, in 2013, the FDA designated Foundation Care as one of the country’s 29 “high-risk” pharmacies after agents raided the pharmacy, after suspecting that the company was not following routine safety protocols. Among other unethical practices, the company has been accused of reselling returned medications, dispensing without prescriptions, and selling bacteria-tainted drugs to consumers which caused the death of at least one patient.
Use of Phenobarbital in capital punishment has been under scrutiny after an Oklahoma death row inmate, Michael Lee Wilson, faced an excruciating death after being injected with the drug. Wilson’s cries that he felt his whole body burning soon after has many activists concerned about whether his 8th Amendment right of “cruel and unusual punishment” was violated.
Pentobarbital possesses a rather interesting and disturbing history. First brought to market in 1912, Phenobarbital was marketed by the German pharmaceutical company Bayer as a hypnotic sedative named “Luminal.” From 1939 to 1943, Nazi forces utilized the drug to euthanize more than 50 intellectually disabled children as part of their eugenics program. In 1997, all 39 members of the infamous Heaven’s Gate cult committed suicide by taking large quantities of Pentobarbital taken with vodka in a quest to reach an alien spaceship they believed to be following Haley’s Comet.
Before Missouri started buying from Foundation Care, an Oklahoma-based pharmacy agreed to stop providing Pentobarbital when it was discovered that they had no license to sell drugs in this state. Official state documents went to great lengths to protect the identity of their new supplier by using the code name “M7” and before the recent exposé, “only a handful of state employees knew the real name.” Countless companies have distanced themselves from being involved with state-sanctioned executions, and pressure has come from both sides of the aisle to abandon the inhumane punishment. A rule intended to protect the identities of executioners from being targeted was expanded in October 2013 by the Missouri Department of Corrections to protect the companies that supply the lethal drugs in an interesting employment of a “companies as people” ideology.
Missouri is not alone in their questionable methods of obtaining lethal drugs and administering capital punishment. Arizona was recently exposed to have bought nearly $6,000 USD worth of lethal injection drugs from a pharmaceutical company that was operating out of a driving school in west London. Unsurprisingly, Texas consistently leads the nations in executions, with Missouri usually placing second.
Coincidentally, it is often much more expensive to put an inmate to death than it would be to house and feed them for the rest of their natural lives in jail. In Oklahoma, empirical analysis revealed that “prosecutors spent triple in pre-trial and trial costs on death penalty proceedings, while defense teams spent nearly 10 times more” as compared to life sentences. Costly lawyer fees, expensive drugs, and lengthy trials all contribute to the massive price tag.
Of course, an honest conversation about the death penalty would not be complete without recognizing the pervasive and corrosive effects of racism in the American criminal justice system. Those who have been convicted of murdering white victims are 82% more likely to face capital punishment than those who murder black victims. This means that the criminal justice system consistently views the death of white victims as more heinous and important than the death of black victims. This mentality, in turn results in black Americans being disproportionately affected by the death penalty and the criminal justice system as a whole.
A review conducted by the Department of Justice found that “48 percent of white defendants were able to receive a sentence less than death through plea bargaining. Yet, only 25 percent of black defendants and 28 percent of Hispanic defendants were able to plead guilty in exchange for life sentences.” These statistics paint a broader picture of the unacceptable and unjust applications of heavy-handed prosecutorial powers, levied against historically disadvantaged populations.
Compounding this, the risk of putting people to death for crimes they did not commit is simply terrifying. A Michigan State study has found that a “conservative estimate” number of inmates that have been killed by the state that have posthumously been found “not guilty” through extensive review of forensic evidence and mishandled investigations is around 4.1 percent, over double the rate of exonerations. With all of these disturbing aspects taken into consideration, is it really worth keeping the death penalty on the books?