Last Wednesday afternoon, convicted murderer Joseph Wood was executed in Arizona by lethal injection. The first drug was administered at 1:52pm. Wood, however, did not die until nearly two hours later, after witnesses said that he "gasped and struggled to breathe" for an hour and 40 minutes. The drugs administered were midazolam (a sedative made infamous as one of the drugs given to Michael Jackson by Dr. Conrad Murray) and hydropmorphone, a pain-killer and respiratory depressant. According to the Death Penalty Information Center, nearly one-third of the executions using Midazolam have had "extremely troubling problems", including cases where the prisoner appeared to fall asleep but then started moving again. This was the first time these two drugs were used in combination for an execution in Arizona. The trio of drugs traditionally used for lethal injection - sodium thiopental, pancuronium bromide and potassium chloride - have been in short supply since 2009, forcing states to develop new cocktails of lethal drugs for executions. The result, in Wood's case and in several others this year, has been executions that take hours instead of 15 minutes, and appear to cause pain and discomfort during the execution process.
Finding the "best" cocktail of drugs for lethal injection executions is a strange and uncertain process. The FDA does not approve drugs for use in lethal injection. Anesthesiologists, the doctors with the most expertise in the drugs used in lethal injection, can lose their licenses if they consult on or participate in an execution. In 1977, an Oklahoma medical examiner proposed a three-drug cocktail for use in executions: sodium thiopental to anesthetize the prisoner; pancuronium bromide to paralyze the prisoner and stop respiration; and potassium chloride to stop the heart. This combination has been used since the first lethal injection execution, which took place in 1982, and its use was upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court in 2008 in Baze v. Rees. It is the predominant execution method in the United States today
In 2011, the European Union, due to its anti-death penalty stance, stopped the export of drugs that can be used for lethal injection to the US (primarily sodium thiopental), and supplies are running low in U.S. prisons. Many drugmakers elsewhere in the world have also stopped selling lethal injection drugs to the U.S. Sodium thiopental is the drug that is hardest to acquire; few manufacturers still produce it, and some states have tried substituting other drugs, such as phenobarbitol. But the manufacture of phenobarbitol is often poorly regulated, and a bad batch can cause excruciating pain, as it did during the execution of Michael Lee Wilson in January 2014.
Because of the EU export ban, and the ethical considerations that keep some manufacturers from directly providing drugs for executions, some drug cocktails used in lethal injections are only available through "compounding pharmacies". Compounding pharmacies customize medications for executions (and for other purposes) by mixing FDA-approved drugs, but they aren’t themselves regulated by the FDA (although they are licensed by their states' pharmacy boards). Consequently, the lethal injection drug combinations may be untested, and the combination will likely be different in each state, or even different for each execution within a state. And as recent accounts of executions have shown, the results for prisoners have been equally inconsistent, in terms of time until death and the amount of suffering and struggle the prisoner appears to endure during the execution process.
You as an individual may believe that a convict on death row deserves to suffer as much as his or her victims. We as a country do not operate that way. Constitutionally, we do not administer "cruel and unusual punishment". We (arguably) do not torture. We do not subscribe to the "eye for an eye" style of punishment. In the interest of full disclosure, I am personally against all methods of capital punishment. But if the United States is going to continue to conduct executions, it needs to find a method that is effective, consistent, and quick. Allowing condemned prisoners to suffer serves no purpose other than to perhaps demonstrate that we are not as evolved as a society as we would like other countries to think.