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Pennsylvania governor temporarily suspends death penalty

  1. Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf (D) on Friday announced that he will suspend the death penalty in the state until he reviews a report about capital punishment there.
  2. The report will look at the effectiveness of the death penalty in Pennsylvania, particularly its costs and whether people wrongfully convicted of a crime are being executed.
  3. The suspension comes during a broader national controversy about the use of secretive lethal injection drugs.

Pennsylvania has executed three people since 1976

Pennsylvania has 188 people on death row, according to October 31 figures from the Death Penalty Information Center. But, as of February 11, it has executed three people since 1976, the year the Supreme Court reinstated the death penalty across the country.

States have been resorting to secretive cocktails since lethal injection drug supplies ran out

execution chamber Thailand

An execution chamber in Thailand. (Gerhard Joren / LightRocket via Getty Images)

Wolf's announcement comes at the same time as a renewed national conversation about the death penalty, sparked by recent, highly publicized botched executions and a scandal over lethal injection drugs. Several states have been relying on experimental, sometimes secret drugs to execute inmates after conventional supplies ran out over the past few years.

A series of events halted states' supply of sodium thiopental, a key ingredient for lethal injections. This has left state governments without the supply necessary to carry out executions since 2011, which is when the last US supplier of sodium thiopental — a company called Hospira — stopped producing the chemical. Later that year, the European Union announced an export ban on sodium thiopental, in accordance with its "universal abolition" of the death penalty.

State governments that wanted to continue using the lethal chemicals were left with two options: they could mix legally available drugs themselves, or they could pay compounding pharmacies to do it for them. The latter brings less liability for state officials, making it a more attractive option.

Several states botched executions this year

death chamber

A death chamber in Indiana. (Scott Olson / Hulton Archive via Getty Images)

Several states botched executions involving experimental drugs this year. Here is a list of some examples:

  • Dennis McGuire: Ohio inmate McGuire, a convicted murderer and rapist, took 26 minutes to die after the state used a mixture of hydromorphone and midazolam, according to Cincinnati's CityBeat. McGuire gasped and snorted before he died.
  • Clayton Lockett: Oklahoma inmate Lockett, a convicted murderer, struggled violently and groaned after the state injected a combination of midazolam, vecuronium bromide, and potassium chloride, the Guardian reported. State officials halted the execution, but Lockett died of a heart attack 43 minutes after the drugs were injected.
  • Joseph Wood: Arizona inmate Wood, a convicted murderer, took nearly two hours to die after the state used a mixture of hydromorphone and midazolam, according to the Guardian. Wood, who gasped and gulped before he died, was injected 15 times the amounts called for in the state's execution protocol by the time he was pronounced dead.

Botched executions aren't new. About 7 percent of lethal injections and 3 percent of all executions between 1890 and 2010 were botched, according to Austin Sarat's Gruesome Spectacles. Many of these executions resulted in gruesome displays similar to the executions of McGuire, Lockett, and Wood.

But these latest botched executions have drawn particular criticism due to the experimental nature of the drugs involved. Some states, including Ohio and Oklahoma, have delayed executions as they review their practices.

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