Back in 2009, there was a three part series of posts here on the Death Penalty Blog, discussing the lethal injection cocktail as it was commonly used at the time: in Florida, this meant a combo of first, thiopental sodium ; second, pancuronium bromide; and lastly, potassium chloride.
From that series (please go to the posts for research details and more info):
- Thiopental sodium is the first drug to be administered during an execution by lethal injection in Florida. As a general anesthetic, thiopental sodium poses special risks because it is so short-lasting that for any number of reasons it can cease to operate as sufficient anesthesia long before the other drugs cause the death of the condemned. Think about that. It stops working within minutes.
- The second chemical involved in the lethal injection process, pancuronium bromide, or Pavulon, is also constitutionally problematic under existing law. A derivative of curare, it operates to suppress any muscular movement, including breathing, in the condemned, but does not anesthetize him or affect his consciousness in any way. According to recent scholarship, it is completely unnecessary to causing the condemned's death, and serves only to make the execution seem more palatable to the other participants and witnesses when the other drugs have their effects, which can include spasm, twitching and other movements of the voluntary muscles.
- Finally, the use of the third drug -- the actual killing agent potassium chloride -- also raises important constitutional concerns. According to Dr. James J. Ramsey, a certified perfusionist and currently the Program Director in the Program in Cardiovascular Perfusion at Vanderbilt Medical Center, Nashville, Tennessee, the adequacy of the potassium chloride to cause death by stopping the heart is in question. The inmate actually suffocates: the lethal injection does not just peacefully stop the heart.
Today, with the dwindling supply of drugs available for executions, there seems to be more public awareness of the chemicals used in capital punishment. This is a good thing, since so many avert their eyes to the realities here.
This Week, The New York Times considers the question.
In a New York Times article published April 9, 2011, entitled "What's in a Lethal Injection 'Cocktail'?" reporter Pam Belluck delves into the issue of what exactly happens in those lethal injection executions, especially now that thiopental sodium isn't being used any longer.
If only it went into more detail. The research shows that the lethal injection method is cruel - and with the innovation of a drug, pentobarbital, that has been used or tested so rarely on human beings, it's also becoming highly unusual, too.
Integrity, Dignity, and Honor
It would nice to think that these injections of drugs into a human being resulted in a merciful death, but research does not support that warm fuzzy. And this was true before states like Ohio and Texas began executing men just as vets euthanize cats and dogs.
Sure, there are proponents of the death penalty who will say "who cares? Let them suffer, look what they did." However, there are the considerations of integrity, dignity, and honor which the state must (or should) maintain.
Our system of government, to the extent that it deems capital punishment to be acceptable, should never stoop to have its actions compared with those that it has found worthy of death. We must insure that the method of execution is merciful, as much as we can.
Right now, with the condoned use of pentobarbital in state executions, it's clear that we are not.