Death Penalty Opponents Push to Stall Lethal Injections

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*Updated, 2:00 PM

Back when Florida executed prisoners in an electric chair, part of the ritual involved plunging the entire maximum security state prison into total darkness as they switched off the grid and onto backup generators. The purpose of this exercise was to protect Florida Power and Light from possible bad publicity–a company in the electricity business doesn’t want the words “time of death” linked to its name on the front page.

Death penalty opponents are using that same principle to try to stall executions by lethal injection. In a letter delivered Tuesday, Helen Prejean, the renowned author of “Dead Man Walking,” asked Cardinal Health, a pharmaceutical company headquartered in Dublin, Ohio, to recall $27,000 worth of Nembutal, an anesthetic, purchased by the State of Georgia. The drug is intended to be used as part of a 3-drug sequence to knock out condemned prisoners, then paralyze them and, finally, stop their hearts. As Prejean put it to Cardinal Chairman and CEO George Barrett, this use of the drug is ” not for the purpose of ‘improving people’s lives,’ as you say on your website, but to kill people, i.e. persons sentenced to death.”

The letter is part of a larger effort to pressure drug companies to stop providing the chemicals for lethal injections. Activists have already succeeded in cutting off supplies of the anesthetic sodium thiopental.

On Wednesday, Cardinal Health Chairman and CEO George S. Barrett responded to Prejean’s letter. Excerpts follow:

        “I respect your position … and appreciate both your advocacy for the treatment of prisoners sentenced to execution and your passion to preserve their lives.

“As a health care distributor, we do not play a  part in the determination made by prescribing physicians, legislators, or regulators regarding the use of the products we distribute. …

“We believe that legislators, regulators and doctors should be the arbiters of how a drug is to be used and for whom.”

*Post updated to include excerpts of Barrett’s response.