Study: Lethal Injection in Executions May Cause Death by Chemical Asphyxiation

A medical study out today casts new doubt on whether lethal injection causes the painless death we've all been told.

The study analyzed executions in two states, California and North Carolina. The findings:

We were able to analyze only a limited number of executions. However, our findings suggest that current lethal injection protocols may not reliably effect death through the mechanisms intended, indicating a failure of design and implementation. If thiopental and potassium chloride fail to cause anesthesia and cardiac arrest, potentially aware inmates could die through pancuronium-induced asphyxiation. Thus the conventional view of lethal injection leading to an invariably peaceful and painless death is questionable.


How the study came about:
Recently we reported that in most US executions, executioners have no anesthesia training, drugs are administered remotely with no monitoring for anesthesia, data are not recorded, and no peer review is done [7]. We suggested that such inherent procedural problems might lead to insufficient anesthesia in executions, an assertion supported by low postmortem blood thiopental levels and eyewitness accounts of problematic executions. Because of a current lack of data and reports of problems with lethal injection for executions, we sought to evaluate the three-drug protocol for its efficacy in producing a rapid death with minimal likelihood of pain and suffering.

Update: Washington Post story here; Reuters here.

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    Lethal Injection cruel and unsual? (5.00 / 1) (#1)
    by caramel on Mon Apr 23, 2007 at 06:25:05 PM EST
    There is never going to be a "decent" way of killing human beings. Executions are plain wrong, period. Killing is cruel and unusual so let's stop the nightmare and move on to more productive ways of helping the human kind and resolving criminality... America a leader in democracy? No way! but the killing fields of the civilized world for sure! This is shameful, the death penalty should belong to history, it has not place in our societies so let's get rid of it.

    Skeptical (5.00 / 1) (#2)
    by Gabriel Malor on Mon Apr 23, 2007 at 06:57:33 PM EST
    Look, I'm against capital punishment in this country. But I am deeply skeptical of the claims that there's no way to humanely execute a person. Thousands of dogs are put to sleep every year. My own dog died in my arms in such a procedure. Are you saying that he was actually in agony the whole time?

    Gabe, (none / 0) (#3)
    by glanton on Mon Apr 23, 2007 at 07:08:16 PM EST
    Why are you against Captial Punishment?

    Capital Punishment (5.00 / 1) (#8)
    by Gabriel Malor on Mon Apr 23, 2007 at 08:09:56 PM EST
    The short version: I am against capital punishment in this country at this time because it's unnecessary. I simply don't see the point.

    The long version: I can't fit capital punishment into any legitimate theories of punishment save one, and I don't personally subscribe to that theory for a variety of reasons.

    Before I go through the common theories of punishment, it's important for me to note that it does nothing for me to simply say that capital punishment is "bad." Capital punishment is bad when compared with its closest alternative, life imprisonment without the possibility of parole. (This point becomes important when I discuss situations when I am not opposed to capital punishment below.)

    First, I don't think that capital punishment provides greater social utility than life imprisonment without the possibility of parole. By "social utility" I mean things like crime prevention, rehabilitation, and deterrence. Obviously, in terms of recidivism, there is no difference between capital punishment and life imprisonment. It also has no rehabilitative effect; with either punishment rehabilitation is not desired. Finally, the policy of execution has either no deterrent effect or an indemonstrable effect.

    Second, capital punishment does not fit into the expressionist theory of punishment because polls show that 46 percent of Americans if given a choice between policies of capital punishment and policies of life imprisonment choose life imprisonment.

    In terms of expenditures of resources, it takes up more judicial and executive resources in its execution (no pun intended) than are freed up in its completion.The point is not just that executions are expensive, but rather that they are uneconomical when compared with the next best alternative, life imprisonment without the possibility of parole.

    Finally, there is the argument that some criminals simply deserve to be killed. The retributivist theory of punishment relies at its most fundamental level on the idea of fairness and proportionality. Proponents of this theory are advocating execution because executing the offender is "fair" for the victims, the victims' families, and all others affected by the capital offender's crimes, including the offender's families.

    This one theory seems to support the use of capital punishment, but only because "fairness" is so subjective. It is its subjectivity that makes it difficult for me to support this theory of punishment. Society, in setting punishments, cannot and should not create a system in which severity of punishment depends solely or even substantially on the whims of legislators. (I'm sure that anyone who rails against the unfairness of drug laws would agree.)

    From all this, you can get the sense that I think there is only one useful result of capital punishment: a person is removed from society. But that can be achieved through life imprisonment, too.

    Note, however, that these conclusions break down when capital punishment is compared with lesser punishments than life imprisonment without the possibility of parole. For example, if the situation exists where it is impossible to imprison someone for life, as in the colonial and pre-Civil War eras, it may be better to have a policy of execution. Similarly, if the deterrent effect were increased, capital punishment may be justified on utilitarian grounds.

    But those situations do not exist in the contemporary United States. We have the capability to live in a society without capital punishment. Financial considerations alone lead to the conclusion that we should lose the death penalty. Just because some folks think that revenge is enough of a reason to kill someone does not make that so. Not on my dime. And not if you cannot show any good reason for it.


    That is very well argued (none / 0) (#11)
    by glanton on Mon Apr 23, 2007 at 10:32:32 PM EST
    I have myself waffled on this issue throughout much of my life, but tend towards being opposed as well.  For me as well, opposition to the death penalty derives largely from the possibility of life imprisonment without parole.

    I especially like how you deal with the revenge element.  Who among us wouldn't reflexively want that kind of revenge were one of our loved ones murdered?  But this is not at all the right mindset for framing law and order.

    Interestingly, though, none of the reasons you gave, though persuasive all, are at the top of my list.  That would have to go to the possibility of executing someone who is innocent.  An imprisoned man proven innocent can be freed, it's a terrible travesty, but he's still alive and that's quite a lot.  


    Doesn't really work. (none / 0) (#12)
    by Gabriel Malor on Tue Apr 24, 2007 at 12:04:17 AM EST
    That reason works on an individual level, but it doesn't work all that well as a statement of principle. Essentially, you're saying you wouldn't have a problem with the death penalty if it worked perfectly. OR, if I could prove to you with 100% certainty that a person was guilty of a capital crime then that rationale does nothing to prevent his execution.

    I know it's just one of the reasons you dislike the death penalty. It just doesn't seem like all that good a reason to me.


    I'm against it (none / 0) (#5)
    by Demi Moaned on Mon Apr 23, 2007 at 07:44:09 PM EST
    Because I think we are degraded by administering it, especially the people responsible for carrying out the execution.

    And that leaves aside the question of inequities in the process of condemnation. Fact is: only the poor and ignorant ever have to face capital charges.


    That's not the point (none / 0) (#4)
    by Al on Mon Apr 23, 2007 at 07:42:02 PM EST
    The point is
    (a) The actual method we (by which I mean you and I) use to kill people is cruel and painful;
    (b) The death penalty is horribly wrong whatever the method used. The very fact that there is a single wrongful conviction automatically implies this. It would still be equally wrong if someone found a way to euthanize convicts.

    But they're two separate points (none / 0) (#7)
    by Demi Moaned on Mon Apr 23, 2007 at 07:47:13 PM EST
    And as to the first point, we should undoubtedly be able to come up with a method of execution that is humane in the way that we would want 'assisted suicide' to be humane.

    no (none / 0) (#6)
    by Jen M on Mon Apr 23, 2007 at 07:45:53 PM EST
    Veterinarians know how to do it right. They also have the appropriate drugs. We techs can do it too. I have never had it go wrong. Your pet was in no pain, except the pinprick, and perhaps that "full" feeling you get with an injection. After that there was no time. You were holding him and all was well.

    Thanks (none / 0) (#9)
    by Gabriel Malor on Mon Apr 23, 2007 at 08:12:17 PM EST
    Every time the lethal injection is brought up I can't help but think about it.

    executions (none / 0) (#10)
    by diogenes on Mon Apr 23, 2007 at 08:31:18 PM EST
    The professional societies say that it's "unethical" for doctors to be involved in executions (though assisted suicides and partial birth abortions seem to pass ethical muster).  Then people complain because the executioners are "incompetent".  Enough.
    There should be a death penalty for inmates who are already doing life who commit another murder and for anyone who murders cops.  The corrections officers need protection, and I remember the recent murderer of a trooper in central NY who told his accomplices as they shot the trooper (during a stop) while fleeing a bank robbery that he knew full well that New York had no death penalty.  

    Can anyone explain (none / 0) (#13)
    by HK on Tue Apr 24, 2007 at 05:27:43 AM EST
    the legal definition of 'unusual' in the term 'cruel and unusual'?  Does it mean unusual in the world today?  Or does it mean unusual within the US?  If the latter is true, then surely any punishment would meet the requirement of not being cruel and unusual provided it was widely practised in the US.  In which case, no challenge on these grounds would ever be successful as long as the majority of States used the punishment in question (and therefore would not be 'unusual' in doing so).

    I notice that there is an execution scheduled in Nebraska on 8th May.  Nebraska is the only State in which the only method of execution available is electricution.  Surely lawyers for this condenmed inmate have a fairly solid challenge against the method of execution on cruel and unusual grounds.  And yet I have not heard of such a challenge being brought in this case.

    Eighth Amendment Unusual (none / 0) (#14)
    by Gabriel Malor on Tue Apr 24, 2007 at 10:26:35 AM EST
    The courts have not provided a clear meaning of "unusual" in the phrase. The phrase taken together is usually treated to invalidate a specific punishment if any of certain criteria are met. Specifically, (1) whether the method of punishment is inherently cruel or severe, (2) whether the punishment is excessive, disproportionate, or unnecessary, (3) whether the punishment is unacceptable to society, and (4) whether the punishment is being inflicted arbitrarily.

    It is likely that criteria (3) and (4) correspond to judicial theories of "unusual," but that is far from clear in Supreme Court jurisprudence. For example, Chief Justice Warren wrote in a plurality opinion in 1958 that the meaning of "unusual" had not been examined by the court, but that he thought it should be taken to mean something different from that which was generally done.

    The 1972 case Furman v. Georgia is probably the best source of info on the meaning of "unusual" as several justices mention it in their concurring and dissenting opinions.

    Justice Douglas wrote that "unusual" meant that punishments could not be arbitrarily or discriminatorily imposed.

    Justice Stewart wrote that "unusual" referred to punishments which were only infrequently imposed.

    Justice Marshall wrote that since "unusual" had never been treated differently than "cruel," then a brand new punishment should not be invalidated so long as it wasn't more cruel than other punishments.

    Chief Justice Burger (dissenting) didn't really think that "unusual" meant anything apart from cruel. It was his view that the Constitution prohibited all punishments of "extreme and barbarous cruelty," regardless of how frequently or infrequently imposed.  Essentially he read the phrase as "no cruel punishment" and couldn't be bothered to separately find that a punishment is "unusual" in addition to "cruel" as would textually be required by the Eighth Amendment.


    Thanks, Gabe (none / 0) (#15)
    by HK on Tue Apr 24, 2007 at 03:30:30 PM EST
    You clarified as much as is possible, but I see from what you have said that the meaning of 'unusual' in this context is still debatable.  Thanks for all the references, too.  It is interesting to note that although Justices Douglas, Stewart and Marshall concurred in their opinions on the case in question (I am assume, since you mention that Burger was dissenting) they still gave differing interpretations of what could be considered  an unusual punishment.

    Yes. (none / 0) (#16)
    by Gabriel Malor on Tue Apr 24, 2007 at 03:51:52 PM EST
    Yeah, I didn't make that clear, but you are right. They agreed with the result but couldn't come to an agreement on the reasoning. All five justices who agreed wrote his own opinion, but none of them agreed with each other. All four dissenting justices also wrote their own opinions, but they at least concurred with each other (with the exception of Blackmun who couldn't get anyone to join his opinion).

    It left us with no clear understanding of how the lower courts should construe the term "unusual."