On July 1, 2021, Attorney General Merrick Garland imposed a moratorium on federal executions and ordered the Department of Justice (DOJ) to review policies and procedures governing the administration of the death penalty. Among other issues, the review will assess the risk of pain and suffering associated with the use of pentobarbital, noting that “some medical experts have concluded that the use of pentobarbital may risk inflicting painful pulmonary edema.”
The announcement also cites concerns about the continued use of the death penalty across the country, including arbitrariness in its application, disparate impact on people of color, and the troubling number of exonerations in capital cases.
Earlier this year, it came to light that the Trump administration has circumvented federal laws and regulations to obtain pentobarbital for use in lethal injection executions between July 2020 and January 2021. During the federal government’s execution of Alfred Bourgeois in December 2020, witnesses reported that he “could not stop heaving and shaking” and was “spotted open-mouthed and writhing in a sound-proof room.”
The review, conducted by the Office of Legal Policy, under the supervision of the Deputy Attorney General, will include consultation with, among many others, the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), medical experts, and other relevant stakeholders, as appropriate.