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Visit to Brussels by Patches Rhode, mother of executed US prisoner

By David Nickols, Senior Executive Officer, EU Foreign Policy, Amnesty International

Last week the EU institutions office in Brussels hosted Patches Rhode and Joshua Ladner, the mother and brother of Brandon Rhode, who was executed by lethal injection in the US state of Georgia last September. Six days before his execution Brandon had almost died after slashing his arms and neck with a razor. The hospital revived him, stitched him up, and he was brought back to prison. There he was held in a restraint chair, in which he was reported to be “in severe pain and discomfort”.

Patches and Joshua had come over from the United States of America to London as guests of the NGO Reprieve, where they had met British officials and addressed a Parliamentary hearing. Their main objective in Brussels was to see if they could secure EU-wide controls on the export of the anaesthetic sodium thiopental, the first of three drugs which are used in most executions by lethal injection in the USA. The sodium thiopental used in the execution of Brandon Rhode had been purchased from a British company, Dream Pharma, since Georgia’s supplies had run out.

A key concern for Brandon’s family has been their understanding that the drug failed to work as it was meant to during his execution, citing the fact that his eyes remained open until his death. It’s normally expected for the prisoner to lose consciousness before the other two drugs are administered. If the anaesthetic didn’t work, Brandon would have suffered excruciating pain until his heart finally stopped.

Since 2006 the EU has had a law which purports to prevent EU companies from exporting products intended to be used in executions or torture. Amnesty International and Omega Research Institute have identified serious loopholes in how this law operates. Our office and national sections in the EU have been lobbying for simple changes to the law which would prevent firms from selling sodium thiopental and other drugs for use in future executions. Frustratingly, we’re facing a bureaucratic brick wall.

Should the EU, which is a staunch opponent of capital punishment, be doing more to block exports of drugs which can be used in executions? We believe it should. It’s hard to explain to a grieving mother and brother that despite the EU’s abolitionist stance, bureaucracy can block Brussels from taking all possible measures against executions. Perhaps meeting the families of people who have been executed and encountering their pain will jog officials into action.

Meeting Patches and Joshua was one of those moments when you glimpse the reality of suffering, and are reminded of how the death penalty extends the suffering of the relatives of murder victims to the families of the condemned. These were real people who had lived through the agony of waiting for Brandon to be killed and who will live out their lives with the pain and grief of the whole gruelling experience. But they emphatically refused to be seen as victims. Their focus was on trying to spare other death row inmates and their families from this cruel and inhuman punishment. And they are fighting for this cause with great eloquence and dignity.