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America Is Running Out of Drugs for Lethal Injections

Last week. Tennessee Governor Bill Lee slammed the breaks on the execution of Oscar Franklin Smith, just an hour before the inmate was scheduled to be put to death by lethal injection. Smith, an Episcopalian, was taking what he thought would be his final communion with his spiritual advisor at the time of the announcement.

The state did not release details on why the execution had been delayed and the Department of Corrections passed along all questions to the Governor’s office, a move the The Tennessean called “unusual.” Smith’s attorney Amy Harwell told The Tennessean that “it was obvious, physical just relief flooding over him. He was thanking God this had stopped for now.”

We don’t know exactly what happened, but the federal public defender’s office told the Tennessean that “an issue or mishandling of the drugs used in the lethal injection may have been the problem.”

It’s a growing problem for states that still use the death penalty. The barbiturate pentobarbital was once the favored drug for lethal injections, but manufacturers have mostly stopped selling it to anyone who would use it for a lethal injection. Some states have come up with a new cocktail, but results have been mixed in ways that often leave the offender in a tortuous state before death, in ways that inmates and their lawyers argue violate constitutional bans on cruel and unusual punishment.

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It’s gotten so bad that states like South Carolina have even re-instituted a firing squad, since they could not guarantee that their other methods of execution would abide by the Constitution.

Smith, who has been in jail since being convicted of slaying his ex-wife Judith Robirds Smith and her two teenage sons Chad and Jason Burnett in 1989, had asked his family not to come to his execution. But officials said that he said good-bye to his brother by phone before receiving his temporary reprieve. The state Supreme Court will set a new date for his execution on June 1.

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