The state of Arkansas put Ledell Lee to death on Thursday night. Flurries of legal filings came towards the end of his grim journey through the criminal justice system, as is typical in death penalty cases. But among those lawsuits were some surprising names: the pharmaceutical companies that manufactured and sold one of three ingredients in the lethal injection cocktail that later ended Lee’s life.
Four companies, Pfizer, McKesson, West-Ward pharmaceuticals and Fresenius Kabi USA—all companies that manufacture or distribute drugs used in the three-part lethal injection cocktail—have taken legal steps to stop the state from using their drugs in executions.
It’s a strange twist in America’s long relationship with the death penalty—and pressure from the pharmaceutical companies explains why Arkansas is going through a barbaric rush to execute as many death row prisoners as possible before there are no more drugs left.
Arkansas has scrambled to complete these executions before the end of the month as their supply of midazolam, one of the key drugs commonly used in lethal injections, is set to expire. The governor and attorney general have both insisted the executions will take place before May 1, no matter the challenge.
“I have a responsibility to the voters, I have a responsibility to my oath of office, but I also have responsibility to a higher power, God and eternity, and I understand that,” Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson said earlier this month.
These companies don’t quite see the same duty to God to participate in executions, and have joined a chorus of pharmaceutical manufacturers and distributors who over the past decade have increasingly refused to sell their drugs to state governments for lethal injection.
“Our products were developed and are approved solely for patient care, and we expressly restrict the sale of our products for use in lethal injection procedures,” wrote Fresenius Kabi in a release following its legal filings.
Much of the controversy in Arkansas centers on the midazolam itself, a common sedative. Not only is the drug going to expire, but Arkansas likely won’t be able to buy any more of it or the two other drugs used in the lethal injection cocktail.
As of 2016, there are no longer any FDA-approved manufacturers who will sell midazolam for lethal injections. Pfizer joined more than 20 U.S. and European companies to ban the use of their products for executions last year. The Associated Press identified West-Ward Pharmaceuticals as the likely manufacturer of the midazolam, and they swiftly filed an amicus brief with another company linked to Arkansas prisons to stop their drug from reaching the execution chamber.