New federal execution method supported by Vanderbilt professor expert testimony from 2017

The Bureau of Prisons consulted Dr. Lindsley for his expert opinion on pentobarbital sodium as a humane means of execution.

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Anjali Chanda

Vanderbilt Law School was founded in 1874, as one of two departments to hold classes in the first year Vanderbilt University opened to students. (Hustler Multimedia/Anjali Chanda)

Charlotte Mauger, Deputy News Editor

After a 17-year hiatus in federal executions, 13 death row inmates were executed under the Trump administration—three in January alone. This recent slate of executions and a new execution method have both prompted national discussion regarding the future of the death penalty, as well as federal methods of execution.

In August 2019, the Bureau of Prisons (BOP) released an administrative record regarding the revised Bureau of Prisons’ Federal Execution Protocol. The report includes expert testimony from two medical professionals—Dr. Craig Lindsley and Dr. Joseph F. Antognini—as well as the official BOP Execution Protocol.

Dr. Craig Lindsley, a professor of pharmacology, biochemistry and chemistry at the Vanderbilt University Medical Center (VUMC), wrote a brief about pentobarbital sodium, one of the proposed single-drug alternatives to the previous three-drug method.

When they were introduced at the federal level in 2001, lethal injections were conducted using a three-drug protocol: an anesthetic (sodium pentothal), followed by a paralytic (pancuronium bromide) and finally a potassium chloride to stop the heart. 

Due to a shortage of sodium pentothal, the BOP began researching different states’ methods and consulting medical professionals, including Lindsley. At the end of its review, pentobarbital was adopted in a new single-drug protocol. Texas used pentobarbital in 78 executions, along with 13 other states.

The question Lindsley addressed in his brief was if the “proper administration” of pentobarbital sodium would produce a humane death or cause “needless suffering,” thereby violating the Eighth Amendment, which prohibits cruel and unusual punishment.

“In my expert opinion, based on deep knowledge of the pharmacology of pentobarbital sodium, the protocol as drafted will produce a humane death with limited suffering and pain,” Lindsley concluded in the brief

In an email to The Hustler, Lindsley declined to comment, citing his agreement with the Department of Justice (DOJ) as preventing him from speaking on the matter.

 “Of all the available options and protocols in use today, I believe this protocol to be the most humane,” Lindsley said in his brief.

In the brief, Lindsley stated that, because of the rapid pace at which the drug takes effect, the person receiving the injection will not experience pain or suffering. Per Lindsley, the dose administered causes a loss of consciousness within ten to 30 seconds. Thus, Lindsley concluded, the single-drug protocol is more humane than two- and three- drug injection methods.

“Case histories that are available with single agent pentobarbital sodium detail highly consistent results and extremely rapid and peaceful passing (as relayed by witness accounts),” Lindsley said in the brief.

Professor Deborah Denno, a professor of law and founding director of the Neuroscience and Law Center at Fordham Law School whose article titled “Lethal Injection Chaos Post-Baze” also was included in BOP’s report, provided historical context to lethal injections. 

Denno’s article estimated that 20 to 25 different drugs were considered either as replacements within the three-drug protocol or as candidates for a single-drug protocol. The BOP cited three main reasons for their selection of pentobarbital sodium: the difficulty obtaining and maintaining multiple drugs, the relative ease of storing only one drug and the relative ease of administering only one drug.

The draft protocol referenced has a gamut of safeguards regarding the procedure. The protocol specified that “the lethal substances shall be prepared by qualified personnel” and that “a suitable venous access line or lines will be inserted and inspected by qualified personnel.” Additionally, the protocol instructed that two separate lines be utilized in case the first one failed.

Per Denno, the specific drugs utilized matter less than the qualifications and competency of the person conducting the execution.

“It’s like a professor writing an exam that that professor thinks is a good exam, but simply ignoring who is going to be administering it to people, how it’s going to be distributed [and] how students are going to download it if they’re taking it at home,” Denno said. 

Using the BOP’s 2019 recommendations, the Trump administration has executed more people than the prior ten presidents combined. Before the Trump administration, there was a decline in federal executions as a result of decreasing public support for the death penalty, as well as limited accessibility to necessary drugs. 

“Whereas executions at the state level have gone down significantly, including in the South where the death penalty is the most popular, we see just the opposite trend at the federal level under the Trump administration,” Vanderbilt Law School Professor Christopher Slobogin said.

He noted that 22 states abolished the death penalty as of 2020, leaving 28 states with the ability to enforce the death penalty, including Tennessee. Of the 28, 5 states went forward with executions in 2020.

The future of the death penalty remains uncertain with states trending towards its abolition and with the recent transition in presidential power to the Biden administration, which is against the death penalty.

“Biden will work to pass legislation to eliminate the death penalty at the federal level, and incentivize states to follow the federal government’s example,” the Biden 2020 campaign website reads. “These individuals should instead serve life sentences without probation or parole.”