Judges Balking at Lethal Injection Procedures

Adam Liptak of the New York Times reports that judges are becoming increasingly skeptical over the lethal injection cocktail used in executions and are imposing more hurdles, some of which may be impossible to overcome.

Their decisions are based on new evidence suggesting that prisoners have endured agonizing executions. In response, judges are insisting that doctors take an active role in supervising executions, even though the American Medical Association's code of ethics prohibits that.

The Supreme Court will hear oral arguments in one case this month. Human Rights Watch will issue a new report on the drugs used this month. What's changed?

....recent decisions... rely on accounts of witnesses, post-mortem blood testing and execution logs that seem to show that executions meant to be humane have, in fact, caused excruciating pain.

There are three chemicals:

The first chemical in the series is sodium thiopental, a short-acting barbiturate. Properly administered, all sides agree, it is sufficient to render an inmate unconscious for many hours, if not to kill him. The second chemical is pancuronium bromide, a relative of curare. If administered by itself, it paralyzes the body but leaves the subject conscious, suffocating but unable to cry out. The third, potassium chloride, stops the heart and causes excruciating pain as it travels through the veins.

In the Willie Brown case, Judge Howard in North Carolina last Friday issued an order requiring medical personnel to be present:

Judge Howard based his order on what he said were "substantial questions" about the possibility of agonizing death. He noted that post-mortem levels of sodium thiopental in the bodies of four North Carolina inmates executed in the last six months suggested that they might have been conscious as they endured the suffocation and pain caused by the final two chemicals. Prosecutors said the testing might not have been conducted properly.

Judge Howard also noted that three lawyers who had witnessed executions in the state submitted sworn statements saying that some of the condemned men were writhing and gagging during their executions.

Doctors cannot ethically participate in an execution so there is no way for them to assure sufficient anaesthesia is being administered. A 2005 medical research report concluded:

...until better protocols are developed and tested and those delivering the executions are better trained to assure it is performed in a humane and competent fashion, execution by lethal injection should be stopped to prevent unnecessary cruelty and suffering.

We reported on the drugs at length here and here . In the Abdur' Raman case, one of the witnesses who testified was a woman who had had eye surgery:

Carol Weihrer, who underwent eye surgery in 1998, testified for Mr. Abdur'Rahman at the hearing in May. Anesthesia was administered before the surgery, as was pancuronium bromide to immobilize the eye. But the anesthesia was ineffective. Ms. Weihrer testified that the experience was terrifying and torturous. She could not, she said, communicate that she was awake. "I remember using every ounce of my strength to try to move," she said....Ms. Weihrer called the experience "worse than death.

One more must-read: You Wouldn't Do a Dog This Way" about the planned South Carolina execution of David Clayton Hill.

There is a solution. It's called life in prison without parole.

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    I fully sympathize with Carol Weihrer's testimony. It is agonizing when anesthesia isn't administered, or doesn't work, properly. A few years ago I went into the hospital for a cardio-version procedure. I was given the anesthesia, the doctors and nurses thought that I was anesthetized, but I wasn't. I could hear the conversations going on around me and I felt agonizing pain both times I was jolted with electricity. The second jolt was especially hellish. I knew that it was coming and how painful it would be and I was unable to communicate with anybody to let them know that I was awake. It was a terrifying and, from what I've learned since, not all that unusual an occurance. If we can't adequately administer anesthesia for pain during routine medical procedures in hospitals then the odds must be high that we're failing to do so in the execution chamber. It's wrong to execute other humans and it's sadistic to torment them using inadequate anesthesia.

    Re: Judges Balking at Lethal Injection Procedures (none / 0) (#2)
    by HK on Wed Apr 12, 2006 at 05:53:43 AM EST
    I have undertaken fairly extensive research recently to write and article on this subject. Although I am very much against the death penalty, I was skeptical about recent legal challenges against the lethal injection. Not any more. It is clear that there is a vast range of problems that can occur with this procedure. The only way that lethal injections could be properly administered is if doctors become executioners. That is a very scary concept. Richard Dieter, Executive Director of the Death Penalty Information Center, told me he forsees legislation to protect doctors from discipline from medical associations if they participate in executions. If such legislation is proposed, I hope doctors and the public will be very vocal in their opposition to it.

    Re: Judges Balking at Lethal Injection Procedures (none / 0) (#3)
    by Edger on Wed Apr 12, 2006 at 06:11:31 AM EST
    There is a solution. It's called life in prison without parole.
    A much simpler solution than all the twisting and spinning and nit picking and fence straddling and self delusions and lies and moral bankruptcy it takes to try unsuccessfully to justify the death penalty. The big disadvantages of course are that it's more humane, and it takes all the fun and satisfaction of revenge and bloodlust out of it...

    the government is only about mass murder of our nation and its people. i will never be taken alive! i want to save you all money.

    Re: Judges Balking at Lethal Injection Procedures (none / 0) (#5)
    by Johnny on Wed Apr 12, 2006 at 07:36:09 AM EST
    Good, maybe someday the rest of americans will see the ludicrousness ok state sponsored murder.

    Re: Judges Balking at Lethal Injection Procedures (none / 0) (#6)
    by Che's Lounge on Wed Apr 12, 2006 at 09:11:06 AM EST
    The big disadvantages of course are that it's more humane, and it takes all the fun and satisfaction of revenge and bloodlust out of it... It's just not logical. But that's Amerika, Anyone seen Spike TV's gladiators yet? They do everything but kill each other. Maybe we'll see a merging of entertainment and justice. Saturday night sentences carried out. "It was what everyone in America would be doing on a Saturday night, if the Nazi's had won." HST "F&L in Las Vegas" GET ME MY AGENT!!!! AND GET BARRY SCHECK ON THE PHONE. PRONTO!!!