The fatal flaws of the lethal injection

The very idea of capital punishment is itself a controversial topic, so it’s understandable that the methods used during executions are also a very prominent human rights issue. The death penalty can be given during sentencing in many countries around the world, with 60% of the global population living in countries that carry out the practice, e.g. China, India and the USA.

The lethal injection is one of many options used to end a prisoner’s life. A different lethal combination of drugs is used depending on where the execution is being carried out.

Execution in the USA normally involves the injection of 3 drugs. Firstly, sodium thiopental is administered, which is an anaesthetic used to cause unconsciousness within 30 seconds, and it also decreases respiratory activity. Secondly, pancuronium bromide is injected, which paralyses skeletal muscles, including the respiratory muscles, i.e. the diaphragm. Finally, the heart of the prisoner is stopped during cardiac arrest, by potassium chloride. Despite the use of all three drugs, the use of one alone could cause death, but it has deemed that the combination is the most ethical way to cause death (for example, the use of potassium chloride alone would kill by cardiac arrest, but would be extremely painful). Another drug, midazolam, is also being introduced experimentally, in place of sodium thiopental.

However, despite the fact that the protocol of three drugs aims to reduce suffering, occasionally things still go wrong. It’s estimated that 7% of all injections are ‘botched’ – in that they don’t go to plan – which is the highest error associated with the death penalty (other error rates are firing squads at 0%, the electric chair at 1.9%, hanging at 3.1%, and the gas chamber at 5.4%). Since the beginning of 2014, there have been 3 highly publicised cases of botched injections: Dennis McGuire on 16th January, Clayton Lockett on 29th April and Joseph Rudolph Wood’s took place on 23rd July.

McGuire was the first individual to be given midazolam as the sedative drug, and was left snorting, gasping and convulsing during the procedure, which lasted 25 minutes (when death should have been almost instantaneous). Despite the botch in McGuire’s death, midazolam was again given to Wood, and a similar chain of events ensued. Wood was injected with the supposed ‘lethal’ injection 15 times, despite one dose supposedly being fatal. It then took Wood over an hour to die, all the while he was gasping for breath. During this time, Wood’s lawyer’s attempted to stop the execution, due to the excessive time that it was taking – they wrote that “He has been gasping and snorting for more than an hour… he is still alive” in their motion. However, this motion was denied, and the announcement came 10 minutes after Wood took his final breath.

Many anti-execution activities believe that this is an example of the lethal injection being an inhumane way to die, and that – if capital punishment is to be carried out – more research has to go into the prevention of suffering. On the other hand, the sister and daughter of Wood’s victims have rubbished these protests, saying of the execution “What I saw today with him being executed, it is nothing compared to what happened on August 7, 1989. What’s excruciating is seeing your father lying there in a pool of blood, seeing your sister lying in a pool of blood.” This view is supported by many pro-capital punishment supporters.

Arguably worst of all was the death of Lockett, in Oklahoma. Declared unconscious 10 minutes after the administration of the first drug, Lockett then began to talk, declaring that “something’s wrong”. He then proceeded to writhe, twitch and convulse, even trying to raise himself off the execution table 15 minutes into the procedure, with his lawyer then reporting “it looked like torture.” It is thought that the execution was stopped 33 minutes after it began, due to Lockett’s vein collapsing. Lockett then died of a heart attack within the next 10 minutes.

During this time, prison officers were heard discussing whether Lockett should be taken to hospital. However, a report on the cause of death suggests that not only was the vein collapsing to blame for the failed injection, but that a low dose of drugs were originally administered, and that – should another vein have been located to continue the execution – there was not a large enough supply of drugs to complete the execution successfully.

As an official review has not been published, there is much speculation as to what really happened on that day – some suggest that Lockett’s veins were perfectly healthy, but an error was made in the insertion of the needle, meaning that the drugs were absorbed into muscle, rather than the bloodstream, reducing their effectiveness.

All three cases mentioned are all examples of how an awful event can be made much worse, and consequently a deep review into the methods of execution must be made, to determine what caused pain to these three men, and how to prevent others going through this unnecessary pain. Further again, the morality of execution and capital punishment itself is even greater.

Hilary Robinson

Image: NBC

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