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Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Execution At Risk

Execution By Drugs

A painless, foolproof method of execution simply does not exist. It may surprise the populace to discover that the prisoner's suffering is not the only consideration in choosing a method of execution. "Policy makers have historically considered the needs of witnesses in devising protocols" for execution, said Dr. Mark Dershwitz, a professor of anesthesiology at the University of Massachusetts, who has testified about the drugs used in lethal injection.

And, whether inmates have actually felt pain or suffocation from lethal injection is not known with certainty.

Dr. Jay Chapman, a forensic pathologist who created the nation's first lethal injection protocol, in Oklahoma in 1977, said that if he were to do it over, he would not recommend the three-drug concoction now in widespread use. (Denise Grady, "Alternatives to Lethal Injection," New York Times, June 23 2006)

According to Wikipedia, the intravenous injection is usually a sequence of drugs given in a set sequence, designed to first induce unconsciousness, followed by death through paralysis of respiratory muscles and/or by cardiac arrest through depolarization of cardiac muscle cells. The execution of the condemned in most states involves three separate injections (in sequential order): Sodium thiopental, Pancuronium, and Potassium Chloride.

Instead, Dr. Chapman said, an overdose of one drug, a barbiturate — the method veterinarians use to end the lives of sick animals — would painlessly cause prisoners to lose consciousness, stop breathing and die. "Hindsight is always 20/20," he said.

As evidence of support for a different method from three injections, Justice John Paul Stevens suggested at oral argument in Hill, the newspaper for and about the U.S. Congress, if a Miami vet put a dog to sleep using Florida's current execution protocol, they would be violating the state's animal-cruelty laws.

It's widely acknowledged that a single, massive dose of barbiturates would be far more reliable, and less painful, than the current "three-drug cocktail" used in lethal injections.

However, execution by intravenous barbiturate alone would take longer than the current method according to Dr. Dershwitz, so states have resisted even minor changes to the lethal injection protocol. Although prisoners would quickly lose consciousness and stop breathing, they could not be pronounced dead until electrical activity in the heart had stopped.

That stoppage could take as long as 45 minutes, and this long time would "subject witnesses to discomfort." In extreme cases, some patients have taken days to die, and a few patients have actually survived the process and have regained consciousness up to three days after taking the lethal dose. (

In addition to the longer time for death to occur, Dr. Dershwitz said, barbiturates could cause "significant involuntary jerking" that would be disturbing to witnesses even though an unconscious prisoner would not feel it.

Options for execution other than intravenous barbiturates are available. Drugs could also be injected into a muscle instead of a vein, to avoid another source of lawsuits: pain among inmates whose veins are hard to find. But, injection into a muscle would take much longer to work than the intravenous method. The New York Times article also reports, still another possibility might be an oral dose of barbiturates, like doctors in Oregon can prescribe to assist suicide of some terminally patients. But prisoners would have to swallow the pills said Professor Deborah W. Denno, a Fordham University law professor who is an expert on execution methods. She continued to say there had never been a procedure in which prisoners have been required to participate in their own executions, essentially agreeing to commit suicide. (June 23, 2006) Professor Denno believes some states might tinker with their procedures just enough to avoid court cases. So, rather than tinkering with a method that doesn't even meet "minimum veterinary standards" for euthanizing pets, why won't states consider not a USDA-approved method for slaughtering cattle? One of the most common techniques currently in use is "captive bolt stunning," which "induces instant insensibility by both concussion and physical destruction of the brain."
1. Decapitation? There is still some debate over over whether inmates retain consciousness after being decapitated. After witnessing the execution of Henri Languille in 1905, one Dr. Beaurieux tested this by calling out "Languille!" in a "strong, sharp voice" several seconds after the guillotine blade dropped. To quote Dr. Beaurieux: "I saw the eyelids slowly lift up, without any spasmodic contractions ... but with an even movement. ... Next Languille's eyes very definitely fixed themselves on mine and the pupils focused themselves. I was not, then, dealing with the sort of vague dull look without any expression, that can be observed any day in dying people to whom one speaks: I was dealing with undeniably living eyes which were looking at me." (Hanni Hindi, "Take My Life, Please"...) 2. Rifleshot Chinese law calls for a rifleman to fire "a single shot from an assault rifle to the back of the head with a hollow point bullet." On impact, the "hollow point bullet" explodes, destroying the top half of the inmate's head. If instantaneous death means anything, it means instant brain death. The guillotine might not achieve this, but the Chinese method of execution certainly does. Still, a gunshot to the head only destroys the cerebral cortex, the part of the brain that registers "distress" and "suffering." But because pain reception occurs throughout the body, an inmate might still "feel" pain after brain death. This death is kind of like the argument over boiling lobsters alive: since they have no cerebral cortex but they do have pain receptors. 3. Firing Squad Still a method of execution on the books in Idaho, Oklahoma, and Utah, the firing squad consists of five riflemen (one with blanks to "spare the conscience of the executioners") aiming at a cloth target placed over the inmate's heart. Bad marksmanship has failed this process resulting in lingering, painful wounds all over the body of the inmate that eventually require someone to make a coup de grâce shot to the head. 4. Cannon An exhaustive 1888 report of the "Gerry Commission" found a foolproof answer to execution in the history of the Sepoy, a native of India allied to a European power in the 1800's. The governor of New York formed this commission to find a "humane and efficient" alternative to hanging. To quote the commission: "Blowing from a cannon ... "The insurgent Sepoy, lashed to the cannon's mouth, within two seconds of pulling the trigger, is blown into 10,000 atoms." "Here," [the witness] adds, "is no interval for suffering, as no sooner has the peripheral sensation reached the central perceptive organ than that organ is dissipated to the four winds of heaven." (Hanny Hindi, "Take My Life, Please,"...) Questions and Conclusions Is present lethal injection humane? Does it constitute torture by producing incredible pain? Does a better, less painful alternative exist? What happens when procedures are ineffective or botched? Many questions remain in the simple debate of how best to allow the state to end a life. I doubt if any method will be declared the best across the board. Killing is a bloody, messy business, and, no matter the method, it doesn't seem to lend itself to sterility.
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