October 14, 2017
On October 12, Robert Pruett became the 1462nd person executed in the United States since 1976. At the age of 16, he began his 99-year prison sentence, after he was convicted as an accomplice to a murder committed by his father. Robert Pruett did not kill anyone, but under the Texas “law of parties”, a person who is involved in a serious crime becomes as guilty as a person who actually committed it. At the start of his life, Robert was sentenced to 99 years behind bars for a murder he did not commit.
The life of Robert Pruett still had yet to touch bottom. While serving his sentence, he was convicted of killing prison guard Daniel Nagle in a stabbing attack spurred by a dispute over a peanut butter sandwich. Although at his trial prosecutors found no physical evidence linking Robert to the murder, Robert Pruett was sentenced to death. The conviction relied largely on the testimony of other inmates, who are alleged to have received favorable deals in exchange for testimony. Robert Pruett claimed that he was innocent.
After spending 22 years in prison, Robert Pruett was executed by lethal injection on Thursday. His life and death story exemplifies the greatest injustice in the democratic world. First, he was given a life sentence for something that would have never occurred if it had not been for his father. Later, he was executed without sufficient evidence to prove his guilt.
Since 1973, 159 US prisoners who were on death row have later been exonerated. Robert Pruett could have been one of them. Execution is the most radical and irreversible punishment and the risk of executing an innocent person can never be eliminated. It is cruel and inhuman, it cheapens human life and puts a government on the same base moral level as those criminals who committed a crime.
According to Amnesty international, the death penalty breaches two essential human rights: the right to life and the right to live free from torture. Both rights are protected under the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, adopted by the UN in 1948 (US signed it as well). However, 58 countries in the world retain death penalty in both law and practice. The US is the only Western country in which capital punishment is still active – it is currently used by 31 states and the federal government.
While other forms of execution are still present in the US, lethal injection is the most widely used. Usually, lethal injections use the same “trio” formula – sodium thiopental anesthetizes prisoners, then pancuronium bromide paralyzes inmates and halts their breathing, then potassium chloride stops the inmate’s heart. Potassium chloride and pancuronium bromide are widely available, but sodium thiopental is increasingly rare. When the last American manufacturer Hospira decided to stop the production of the drug in 2010, the US had no other option, than to turn to international markers for sodium thiopental supplies.
The anti-death penalty charity Reprieve claims that in the same year, Dream Pharma, which is a pharmaceutical company operating out of a west London, was paid 6,000 dollars by Arizona State prison complex for 150 vials of sodium thiopental, 180 vials of potassium chloride and 450 vials of pancuronium bromide. There were other cases regarding lethal injection drugs being exported from Europe to the US, but the EU, with its strict stance on death penalty, decided to end the trade of lethal injection drugs.
In 2012, the EU imposed strict controls on exports of drugs used in lethal injections. In 2016, it ordered a ban on the transit of torture equipment on the territories of EU member states and via European ports. Moreover, the EU contributed over 4.8 million dollars in donations to the US anti-death-penalty organizations from 2009-2013.
Consequently, the US has started running out of execution drugs. Faced with the shortage, US prisons decide to use experimental chemicals, which very often cause inhumane pain. However, switching drugs resulted in many new lawsuits and started a new debate whether lethal injection is not a “cruel and unusual” punishment, which is prohibited by the US Constitution.
Also, since the EU banned exports of lethal injection drugs, many states have stalled executions due to the lack of the vital element of lethal injection. The Death Penalty Information Center found that executions in 2016 had fallen to their lowest level since 1991 with 20 inmates executed in 2016. It would be incorrect to underestimate the impact of the EU’s trade ban on this sudden drop in executions.
But Europe’s fight for the abolition of the death penalty does not end here. Less than a month ago, the European Union started leading a new campaign which could, in fact, end the executions in the US prisons. Known as the Alliance for Torture-Free Trade, the group is composed of 60 countries which are determined to compel the United Nations to end the trade in lethal drugs used in capital punishment.
Cecelia Malmstrom, the EU Trade Commissioner and the campaigner’s leading spokesperson, stated that international cooperation is crucial if we want to strengthen human rights: “it is time for concrete action to shut down this despicable trade. The EU’s own laws in this field have had positive results, but producers try to get around such legislation. The more countries that sign up to cooperate, the more effective we will be. I am convinced that trade policy can be a way to strengthen human rights around the globe.”
When the Commissioner was asked if the initiative was created to fight against the US death penalty policy, she replied that it is not targeted against any country. However, Europe is well-aware of its significant impact on the US capital punishment system. When the EU refused to supply the drug, US states looked for alternative sources to replenish their stocks. For instance, Kayem Pharmaceuticals, an Indian firm, sold several states sodium thiopental before banning all such sales. Fearing for their reputation, companies do not want to see their drugs used in executions.
If Europe’s new campaign is successful, the number of countries able and willing to export sodium thiopental may drop to zero. In this case, US states would have no means of executing a prisoner by lethal injection due to the lack of the vital component. As a result, state governments would have to investigate other alternatives of executing inmates, or take a major step towards protecting human rights and abolish the death penalty. It might take years, but we are moving in the right direction.