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....Takes too long and makes witnesses uncomfortable? How can that outweigh the interests on the other side? I imagine some of you are getting ready to write that people who get the death penalty deserve to suffer, and that's why I worry about the mental state of the person who prepares the dose of the first chemical. Now, it's known that if you skimp on it, the method of execution that was supposed to be gentle can be made excruciating. I'm not surprised that judges have responded by demanding supervision by medical personnel.
The recent decisions, by contrast, 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.
The three chemicals used in lethal injections in about 35 states have long attracted attention for what critics say is their needless and dangerous complexity.
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.
Problems arise, lawyers and experts for the inmates say, when poorly trained personnel make mistakes in preparing the chemicals, inserting the catheters and injecting the chemicals into intravenous lines. If the first chemical is ineffective, the other two are torturous.
In veterinary euthanasia and in assisted suicides in Oregon, a single lethal dose of a long-acting barbiturate is typically used. But corrections officials and their medical experts say using that method in executions would take too long and would subject witnesses to discomfort.
April 12, 2006
The legal challenges to lethal injections have been rather successful lately: