House Committee Wants Answers on DOJ's Plans for Controversial Drug Used in Executions

The House Oversight Committee sent a letter to Attorney General Merrick Garland on Wednesday, demanding information about whether the Biden administration plans to acquire any pentobarbital, a drug used in federal executions, while there is a moratorium on the executions.

Garland ordered the moratorium in July, along with a review of the federal government's policies for executions, after the Trump administration completed 13 executions from July of 2020 through January of this year, more than the previous 56 years combined, according to the Associated Press.

Pentobarbital, which depresses the central nervous system and stops a person's heart in large doses, was used in all 13 of the federal executions, and attorneys for at least one of the inmates executed claimed that their client suffered "extreme pain" after being injected with the drug, and before he was pronounced dead.

Committee members Representatives Jamie Raskin and Ayanna Pressley, both Democrats, wrote the letter, requesting that the Department of Justice to brief the committee by December 22 about the results of the review Garland started in July, and whether the administration has plans to get pentobarbital based on its new policies.

They said the briefing was necessary following the administration's Supreme Court arguments over the summer for the Court to reinstate convicted Boston Marathon bomber Dzhokar Tsarnaev's death sentence, and the previous public complaints made about the drug.

Executions that took place in the early 2000s used a combination of three drugs that were eventually revoked from death penalty procedures by pharmaceutical companies.

In 2020, then-Attorney General William Barr approved the new policies that allowed for the use of pentobarbital alone for executions.

House Committee, Federal Executions, Jamie Raskin
The House Oversight Committee, which includes Representative Jamie Raskin, a Maryland Democrat, is demanding that the Justice Department provide answers about whether Biden administration officials plan to procure pentobarbital, used in federal executions despite an ongoing moratorium on capital punishment. A committee member, Raskin speaks during the House select committee hearing on the January 6 attack on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C., on July 27, 2021. Andrew Harnik/Associated Press File

The moratorium applies only to executions and doesn't prohibit prosecutors from seeking the death penalty.

The Justice Department didn't immediately respond to an AP request for comment on Thursday.

In more than 90 minutes of arguments in October, the court's six conservative justices seemed likely to embrace the Biden administration's argument that a federal appeals court mistakenly threw out Tsarnaev's death sentence for his role in the 2013 bombing, which killed three people near the marathon's finish line.

"Given its recent actions, we are concerned that the DOJ may renew its efforts to obtain pentobarbital from non-FDA-regulated pharmacies for use in future federal executions," Raskin and Pressley wrote. "This would be consistent with the actions of certain states that have continued using single-drug pentobarbital in state executions."

It doesn't have widespread medical uses, though it is often used by veterinarians to anesthetize or euthanize animals.

For three federal executions in the early 2000s, a mixture of drugs was used: sodium thiopental, which has a similar effect as pentobarbital; pancuronium bromide, which paralyzes the body; and potassium chloride, a drug that induces cardiac arrest.

Secrecy surrounded all aspects of the 2020 executions.

The Justice Department and the federal Bureau of Prisons have repeatedly refused to provide any details about where the drugs were procured or any specific information about the procedures for how they were administered during the executions.

AP reported in February that the accounts provided by prison executioners who put the 13 inmates to death were at odds with reports of media witnesses. The prison officials likened the process of dying by lethal injection to falling asleep and called gurneys "beds" and final breaths "snores."

Those tranquil accounts contrasted with reports by AP and other media witnesses of how prisoners' stomachs rolled, shook and shuddered as the pentobarbital took effect inside the U.S. penitentiary death chamber in Terre Haute, Indiana. AP witnessed every execution.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

House Committee, Federal Executions, Pentobarbital
The House Oversight Committee is demanding that the Justice Department provide answers about whether Biden administration officials plan to procure the drug used in federal executions despite an ongoing moratorium on capital punishment. Above, a gurney in the death chamber at Greensville Correctional Center in Jarratt, Virginia, on March 24, 2021. Steve Helber/Associated Press File