Thursday, April 28, 2005

Lethal Injection Is Torture?

As I’ve said before, I’m against the death penalty. I have many reasons for this. They include the horrible possibility of executing the innocent, the tremendous advantage of the rich and famous over the poor in avoiding the death chamber, and the dehumanizing effect of the death penalty on the people who carry it out and on society as a whole. Many have elaborated on these themes; I won’t do so now.

I believe that some crimes are so heinous that those who are found guilty beyond a reasonable doubt of committing them should forfeit their freedom for the rest of their lives. No ifs, ands, or buts. But I can’t think of any crime that deserves the death penalty. The more heinous the crime, the more mentally ill, defective, or disabled the perpetrator is likely to have been at the time, and I don’t believe in killing people for being any of those things, any more than I believe in killing people for being unable to see, hear, or walk.

However, I, like most who oppose the death penalty or consider it a necessary evil, have taken some consolation in the adoption of lethal injection by most states as the method of choice for executions. If executions have to be carried out, at least the condemned don’t have to suffer once the process commences. They’re mercifully drugged into a deep sleep before they’re poisoned to death. Or so we thought.

A recent study suggests otherwise. Researchers Dr.Leonidas Koniaris and colleagues at the University of Miami Miller School of Medicine, analyzed the execution protocols of Texas and Virginia (where 45% of the nation’s executions are carried out) as well as autopsy toxicology data from 49 executions in other states using lethal injection. What they found is profoundly disturbing, or at least it should be.

Execution by lethal injection is a three-stage process. First, a general anesthetic like sodium thiopental is administered to induce unconsciousness, followed by pancuronium bromide to paralyze the body and breathing muscles, and then potassium chloride to stop the heart. However, if not enough of the first drug is administered, the condemned could remain conscious to experience the misery and terror of suffocation and the “excruciating” pain caused by the administration of potassium chloride without being able to move or in any way express their agony.

The researchers found that the executions in Texas and Virginia were carried out by unsupervised medical technicians (Doctors are prohibited by their professional ethics from participating.) who weren’t trained in anesthesia, who didn’t monitor the anesthesia or collect data during or after the execution, and who weren’t subjected to any peer review afterwards. The researches also analyzed the toxicology reports from the other 49 executions and determined that most of the executed didn’t have as much sodium thiopental in their blood as would be required for surgery, and that 21 had thiopental concentrations consistent with consciousness. In other words, many who are executed by lethal injection may suffer a little or a lot after the drugs are administered.

I realize that many would argue that these individuals deserve to suffer for the suffering they inflicted on others. Nothing I could say here would likely change their minds. But those of us who don’t believe in an “eye for an eye” or who accept the Constitutional prohibition of “cruel and unusual punishment” should be very concerned about lethal injection and seek to insure that it’s either carried out humanely or not all all. If we’re going to kill people in the most cold-blooded and premeditated way possible, let us at least not torture while we kill.

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