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Guest column: Lethal injections are immoral

Lethal injections and capital punishment are inhumane and immoral. Better alternatives should be considered, and this horrid, imperfect method must come to an end. | Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons/user: 99of9

Emmitt Foster laid on his gurney as the lethal chemicals began flowing into his arm. Seven minutes later, the chemicals stopped circulating, and the inmate was seen convulsing and gasping for air. The blinds were drawn to shield witnesses from observing the imminent death.

Lethal injection in the form of a triple-drug cocktail was proposed in 1977. The primary method of execution in the United States is now lethal injection, accounting for 88 percent of all executions in the past 41 years, according to the Death Penalty Information Center.

From 1890 to 2010, 7.1 percent of executions by lethal injection resulted in prolonged or painful death, which is the highest rate among forms of capital punishment, according to Statista.

Capital punishment is essentially society’s collective decision that someone has committed a crime so heinous they no longer deserve to exist. The point of capital punishment isn’t to make the criminal suffer, but to take their life in the most efficient and painless means possible. After all, the Eighth Amendment was created to safeguard Americans against “cruel and unusual” punishments.

Aside from lethal injection, other methods of execution have similar potential to cause undue physical suffering.

Hangings are problematic. If the noose isn’t right, the body is decapitated. If the neck isn’t broken, the convict suffocates from strangulation. Electrocutions are messy and very frequently botched. Heads catch on fire and flesh swells to the point of breaking—not a deserving experience for anyone, no matter how merciless his or her crime was.

According to Deborah W. Denno, a death penalty expert at Fordham University, there has always been a shroud of secrecy around what drugs are being used, in what proportions they are being given and the qualifications of the doctors conducting these executions. This information is only revealed during the investigation of a botched execution.

Many executioners are doctors who have malpractice claims at other hospitals and often have nowhere else to practice. 

Many cases of botched lethal injections have been solely from human error because executioners couldn’t find a usable vein. Oftentimes, executioners don’t have the experience to deal with the physiology of inmates, who often become muscular while in prison or have collapsed veins from past drug addiction.

A Deadly Cocktail

There have been variations of drugs used in the three-part lethal injection process due to shortage of drug supply.

The first drug is a barbiturate—sodium thiopental—which renders the prisoner unconscious. The second drug is a muscle relaxant called pancuronium bromide, which paralyzes the diaphragm and lungs. The third drug is potassium chloride, which causes cardiac arrest, leading to the prisoner’s demise.

In some states, potassium chloride isn’t even allowed for use on pets, as it may cause a considerable amount of pain.

When the pancuronium bromide was used, it was so strong that it kept the lungs and diaphragm from functioning. Prisoners who were paralyzed would not writhe, cry and gasp for air as they died.

This made watching executions easier for witnesses, making it an apparently peaceful passing. In reality, the paralytic agent could be hiding the pain, masking a conceivably inhumane method of execution.

In recent years, only one drug was used for a while: a barbiturate called pentobarbital. Hospital patients are typically given a dose of 100mg of pentobarbital for general anesthesia, but 5g are needed for a lethal dose. The drug takes effect in 10-15 seconds and supposedly leads to a painless death.

When its Danish manufacturer came to know the drug was being used for executions, however, it threatened to cut supply to the United States, including hospitals.

“Some Department of Corrections have used pentobarbital that’s made in a compounding pharmacy. These are pharmacies that make drugs for individuals by doctor prescription,” Denno said. “They’ve made drugs that are highly problematic for people, as well because of the lack of regulation.”

When the Department of Corrections jumps from drug to drug to find replacements, often new and untested ones, more issues arise in executions. The shortage of pentobarbital and sodium thiopental has led to the current use of midazolam as part of a two- or three-drug concoction. Midazolam is a sedative intended to cause drowsiness and relieve anxiety.

Experts say the 500 mg dose given in executions may still allow prisoners to experience pain. Since 2014, there have been numerous cases of inmates experiencing snorting, gurgling, teeth clenching, writhing, suffocation and back arching for as long as 43 minutes after the start of the execution.

If states choose to permit capital punishment, the procedure needs to be as painless as possible. If we execute our inmates mercilessly, what makes us any different from them?

Farrah Khan is a student at the University of Houston. If you would like to submit a guest column, please contact us at [email protected].

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