Lethal injection: A painless execution or a deadly weapon?

The lethal injection was introduced as a cheaper method of injection that was supposed to cause lesser pain than other methods. But is that the case?

Published: 28th April 2017 10:59 PM  |   Last Updated: 28th April 2017 10:59 PM   |  A+A-

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By Express News Service

The lethal injection was introduced as a cheaper method of injection that was supposed to cause lesser pain than other methods. But is that the case?

The state of Arkansas had planned to put eight inmates to death by administering them lethal injection over a period of 11 days. The executions were set to begin April 17 and continue till the end of the month before one of the drugs used to sedate the inmates— Midazolam— expires. 

The executions were put on hold following multiple court rulings—one raising an issue over the usage of a drug while the other supporting the claim of a drug manufacturing company that alleged the State had not been honest about the reasons for obtaining the drug vecuronium bromide which is a muscle relaxant. 

Attorneys for the eight men also tried to block the executions saying Midazolam may not necessarily prevent pain. However, the US Supreme Court denied Ledell Lee’s—one of the death row inmates— appeal. 

On Thursday night, the state of Arkansas went ahead with the first of the executions when they administered the lethal injection to Lee who was sentenced to death in 1995 for the murder of Debra Reese. 

Had Arkansas carried out the eight executions in 11 days, it would have become an unprecedented phenomenon with so many people been put to death in such a compressed time frame. 

So, what exactly is a lethal injection? It is a method of executing a death row inmate by injecting either a single lethal dosage or a series of multiple drugs into the inmate’s body. In most cases, the lethal injection consists of a series of three drugs—the first one that renders the prisoner unconscious, the second one that paralyses muscles and third one that stops the heart.

The method was first proposed in 1888 by a New York doctor as a cheaper way of execution but was not accepted. Years later, an Oklahoma state medical examiner Jay Chapman proposed a cheaper method of execution which came to be known as the Chapman protocol. Texas became the first state to switch to lethal injection as a method of execution.

But the executions have not always been painless and there have been cases of botched executions. Take for example, the case of Clayton Lockett who died after 43 long minutes from the moment he was sedated. Or the execution of Ronald Bert Smith who heaved, coughed and struggled for breath.

The current tussle between the State of Arkansas and the inmates on the death row brings to light the issues regarding the usage of lethal injections. Are they painless? Do they make the prisoner on green mile suffer more than he would have through other methods of execution? 


Which drugs are used for lethal injection?
Till 2009, most states in the United States have used a combination of three drugs—an anesthetic which is (usually sodium thiopental, until pentobarbital was introduced at the end of 2010), pancuronium bromide (a paralytic agent, also called Pavulon), and potassium chloride (it stops the heart and causes death). A few states have used Midazolam as the first drug in the series of the three-drug execution. Many states have also used a lethal dosage of Pentobarbital. 

In how many countries is lethal injection allowed as a method of execution?
Lethal injection is allowed in six countries— United States, China, Taiwan, Guatemala, Thailand and Vietnam.

Is execution by lethal injection painful?
It is supposed to be painless as the purpose of the first of the three injections is to render the inmate unconsciousness post which the other two drugs are used. However, many times the first drug has failed to act due to multiple reasons and executions have ended up being a painful affair for the inmate.

How many lethal injection executions were botched?
According to a book “Gruesome Spectacles: Botched Executions and America's Death Penalty” by author Austin Sarat, lethal injections had the highest rate of botched executions. It says over a period of 120 years, 75 executions were botched out of the 1,054 executions conducted using lethal injections—a rate of 7.12%.

Lethal injection "Firsts"

  • First state to use lethal injection: Texas, December 7, 1982
  • First state to use one-drug method: Ohio, December 8, 2009 (single drug was sodium thiopental)
  • First state to use pentobarbital in three-drug protocol: Oklahoma, December 16, 2010
  • First state to use pentobarbital in one-drug protocol: Ohio, March 10, 2011
  • First state to use midazolam in three-drug protocol: Florida, October 15, 2013
  • First state to use midazolam in two-drug protocol: Ohio, January 16, 2014

Cases of botched executions using lethal injection

1. Ronald Bert Smith, Jr.: During the course of his execution on December 8, 2016, Smith heaved, gasped and coughed while struggling for breath for 13 minutes after the lethal drugs were administered. His death was pronounced 34 minutes after the execution began.  Smith had reportedly clenched his fists and raised his head during the early part of the procedure.  Alabama used the controversial sedative midazolam (a “valium-like drug”) in the execution.

2. Joseph R Wood: After the chemicals (midazolam and hydromorphone) were injected, Wood repeatedly gasped for one hour and 40 minutes before death was pronounced on July 23, 2014.  During the ordeal, Wood’s attorneys filed an emergency appeal to a Federal District Court and placed a phone call to Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy in a failed effort to halt the botched execution.

3. Clayton D Lockett: An hour before the execution began on April 29, 2014, the governor was notified that the executioner was having problems finding a usable vein, but she did not intervene.  After an hour, a vein was finally found in Lockett’s groin area, and the execution went forward. 
Ten minutes after the administration of the first drug, a sedative, the physician supervising the process announced that the inmate was unconscious, and therefore ready to receive the other two drugs that would actually kill him.  Those two drugs were known to cause excruciating pain if the recipient was conscious.  However, Lockett was not unconscious.  Three minutes after the latter two drugs were injected, Lockett reportedly began breathing heavily, writhing on the gurney, clenching his teeth and straining to lift his head off the pillow. Officials then lowered the blinds to prohibit witnesses from seeing what was going on, and 15 minutes later the witnesses were ordered to leave the room. The execution was also halted. Lockett died 43 minutes after the execution began, of a heart attack, while still in the execution chamber.

4. Dennis McGuire: McGuire was executed on January 16, 2014. He reportedly gasped for air for some 25 minutes while the drugs used in the execution— hydromorphone and midazolam— slowly took effect. Witnesses reported that after the drugs were injected, McGuire was struggling, with his stomach heaving and fist clenched, making “horrible” snorting and choking sounds.

5. Joseph L Clark: Joseph Clark was executed on May 2, 2006. The execution took 22 minutes with technicians not being able to find a vein suitable for insertion of the catheter. But three or four minutes thereafter, as the vein collapsed and Clark’s arm began to swell, he raised his head off the gurney and said five times, “It don’t work. It don’t work.” The curtains surrounding the gurney were then closed while the technicians worked for 30 minutes to find another vein. Media witnesses later reported that they heard moaning, crying out and guttural noises. His death was pronounced almost 90 minutes after the execution began.



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