The Pennsylvania Department of Corrections confirmed Friday that it does not have the drugs necessary to carry out the execution, but a spokeswoman declined to provide information regarding why. This comes amid an ongoing shortage of lethal injection drugs that has left states with capital punishment scrambling to obtain them, even as some states have contemplated reviving older execution methods, such as like firing squads or gas chambers.
Corbett signed the death warrant for Michael in July, setting the execution date for Sept. 22. The execution was temporarily stayed by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 3rd Circuit last month as it weighs a petition for the full court to hear Michael’s case. But if the stay is lifted, the Department of Corrections — which is responsible for carrying out death sentences, and has to do so on dates established by the governor — would then be obligated to execute Michael by lethal injection.
“We cannot do so because we do not have the drugs,” Susan McNaughton, a spokeswoman for the Department of Corrections, said in an e-mail. “We continue to work to acquire the drugs in accordance with the law.”
When asked for additional details regarding why the department did not have the necessary drugs or when it expected to get them, McNaughton said that she could not discuss any details regarding how the drugs are obtained.
If and when the department gets the lethal drugs, John E. Wetzel, the department’s secretary, would alert Corbett’s office in writing. Barring any sort of stay, Corbett would then sign an execution warrant for Michael — the fifth death warrant bearing Michael’s name, and the third signed by Corbett — setting a new date for his execution.
Michael was convicted of abducting and shooting 16-year-old Trista Eng in York County. He was sentenced to death in 1995, the same year Pennsylvania carried out its first lethal injection, putting Keith Zettlemoyer to death. Since then, former governors Tom Ridge and Ed Rendell signed execution warrants for Michael in 1996 and 2004, respectively; Corbett also signed a warrant in 2012.
All three of these warrants wound up being dissolved after stays were issued and Michael filed a series of appeals and motions for stays.
The state has 184 people on death row and has carried out three executions since the U.S. Supreme Court reinstated the death penalty in 1976; it has not executed anyone since 1999. Corbett has signed dozens of execution warrants since he took office in 2011, so there have been other executions scheduled, including one that was set for June before it was stayed.
News of Michael’s reprieve comes a day after a lawsuit was filed on behalf of media organizations demanding additional information regarding the source of the drugs that would be used in his execution. This suit said that revealing the source of the drugs “would be of intense interest to the public,” as there has been greater attention paid to executions in the United States following three problematic lethal injections this year. The American Civil Liberties Union in Pennsylvania filed the suit on behalf of the Guardian’s U.S. operation, the Philadelphia Inquirer, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette and the Philadelphia City Paper.
This lawsuit followed two other suits, filed earlier this year in other states, challenging the secrecy that suffuses the lethal injection process in the United States. In May, media outlets sued the Missouri Department of Corrections to try to force it to release more details about where the state — which has executed eight people this year, tied with Texas for the most in 2014 — obtained the drugs it was using in lethal injections.
The ACLU and the Guardian’s U.S. operation filed a suit last month arguing that journalists and witnesses in Oklahoma should be allowed to see more of what happens during executions. Their suit cited a high-profile botched execution in the state, which took place with key moments shielded from view. In particular, the assembled journalists and other witnesses were unable to see the moment that the inmate, Clayton Lockett, died. Nor did they see the repeated issues involved in placing the IV in Lockett’s vein.
A state investigation released earlier this month specifically cited issues with the IV as a major problem with that botched injection, which drew criticism from President Obama and the United Nations.