The Case for Lethal Injection

The Case for Lethal Injection

by Beverly Rice, December 2009

Clarence Hill isn't afraid to die. He just wants it to be as painless as possible. Hill, convicted in 1982 for killing a police officer, has filed a civil rights complaint alleging his scheduled execution by lethal injection is unconstitutional because he could suffer excruciating pain during the event.

The Supreme Court took up the matter in April to decide whether Hill should receive a hearing on his complaint. The Court is not considering the constitutionality of lethal injection in this case.

Lethal injection has come under fire recently due to a 2005 Lancet medial journal study which showed that the painkiller administered prior to execution could wear off before the lethal drug dosage goes into effect. Death penalty foes have used this study as fuel for their opposition to lethal injection, and the death penalty in general, as cruel and unusual punishment.

Considering the alternatives of hanging, firing squad, gas chamber, and Sparky the electric chair, lethal injection is the most humane way to execute a person. Although medical ethics forbid doctors from participating in the process, a team of medical technicians prepare the inmate for execution and administer the drugs used. Devices are placed on the inmate to monitor his heart and intravenous drips transport the lethal drug doses into the body.

The prisoner is injected with an anesthetic, sodium thiopental, to induce unconsciousness. Compare this with other methods where the person is awake during the execution. Pancuronium bromide (paralyzes muscle system, stops breathing) and potassium chloride (stops the heart) flow intravenously from tubes into veins in the inmate's arm. The prisoner dies from anesthetic overdose, respiratory failure, and cardiac arrest. A physician is allowed to certify that the prisoner is dead.

Lethal injection critics point to problems with the procedure such as poorly trained medical technicians. During Joseph Clark's execution this month, technicians struggled for 30 minutes to locate a good vein in his arm. Many doctors believe the three-drug combination used in most states more than likely causes some inmates torturous and unnecessary pain.

Improperly administering the anesthesia could cause the prisoner to wake up suffocating from the bromide and experiencing a fierce burning sensation from the potassium chloride running through his veins. Records from a recent California execution have documented inadequate anesthesia problems.

Lethal injection itself is not unconstitutionally cruel punishment, especially considering the heinous and senseless acts that landed the condemned prisoner on death row. The problem is not the way method is intended to be carried out, but the way it is actually done. Medical technicians must be better trained in administering correct dosages and inserting needles. The drug sequence used needs to be reviewed by doctors to determine the most pain-free combination that can do the job.

Lethal injection using a single barbiturate dose should be reconsidered. Prison officials dislike using this drug because it takes 30 minutes longer to stop the heart, thus prolonging the time required to witness an inmate's death. However, the drug only requires a single dose to work and is less painful than the more popular drug combination now in use.

It is not known when the Supreme Court will decide whether Clarence Hill can be heard on his claim of undue pain and suffering. This month, justices declined to hear a second case challenging lethal injection, probably because the case contained broader constitutional issues. The Hill case centers on only whether prisoners can file last minute civil rights challenges to a lethal injection execution.

It would be in the best interest of prison officials and death penalty supporters to review the current lethal injection procedure and make changes that will withstand legal claims of pain and unconstitutionally cruel punishment.