Should states continue to use lethal injections for executions?
May 7, 2014
By Jeremy Quattlebaum, Student Voices staff writer
In late April, convicted murderer Clayton Lockett’s botched execution in Oklahoma made headlines as details of his 43-minute ordeal came to light. Reporters who witnessed the execution said Lockett writhed in pain after the lethal injection. He ultimately died of a heart attack. The execution illustrates the problems for states that continue to execute prisoners by lethal injection. The states are having a harder time finding the necessary drugs and qualified medical personnel to carry out the executions.
The Eighth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution states: “Excessive bail shall not be required, nor excessive fines imposed, nor cruel and unusual punishments inflicted.” The “nor cruel and unusual punishments” phrase means that no matter how horrific the crime, the punishment shall not be cruel, inflicting needless pain.
The constitutionality of the death penalty has been challenged several times as being “cruel and unusual,” starting with the 1879 case Wilkerson v. Utah in which the Supreme Court ruled that death by firing squad was not a violation of the Eighth Amendment. Over the years, the court has upheld the view that as long as the execution is quick and relatively painless, it does not violate the Eighth Amendment. The court has imposed restrictions about who can be executed; for example, an inmate who is mentally challenged or juveniles cannot be executed.
Essentially the state of capital punishment has not changed much since the founding of the country, just the methods. Hanging, firing squads and electrocution have been used, but their gruesomeness led to clinical alternatives that were more humane. The federal government and the 32 states that allow capital punishment use lethal injection. Lethal injection has come under criticism because of the difficulties of finding experienced medical professionals to properly administer the injection and because of drug shortages.
In 2010, the American Board of Anesthesiologists decided to revoke the certification of any member who participated in an execution. An official of the board said: “We are healers, not executioners.” Anesthesiologists would lose their license, which would prevent them from working in hospitals. Reports from Oklahoma point to an inexperienced person improperly trying to inject an untested formula into Lockett’s femoral artery, something that many anesthesiologists have said is very tricky to administer, even for a seasoned professional.
The second issue is access to sodium thiopental, the anesthetic commonly used in executions. The lone U.S.-based company that provided sodium thiopental stopped selling the drug in 2011 because Italy, where the drug was manufactured, objected to its use in executions. When states tried to import the drug, the European Union banned the export of drugs used in executions, including pentobarbital. States have since scrambled to find the drugs. Some have tried new drug mixtures, experimenting with different formulas and imposing secrecy on their suppliers, including compounding pharmacies — lightly regulated laboratories that mix up drugs to order. Opponents have raised questions about quality control. Essentially, states have to play it by ear for every execution.
“States are trying out new lethal-injection cocktails, and there is inadequate training and supervision and oversight of execution teams,” David Waisel, an associate professor of anesthesia at Harvard Medical School, told the Washington Post. “Given these recurring problems with lethal injections, if I had to be executed, I would choose a firing squad.”
Some have suggested that states do away with the three-drug cocktail and use a large dose of a sedatives or anesthetic. In the71 cases in which the condemned were executed by a single large dose of barbiturates, Dr. Mark J. Heath, an anesthesiologist at Columbia University and opponent of lethal injection, told the New York Times: “I have not seen a single complaint, not an unhappy warden or family or anybody, from the single-drug barbiturate approach.”
The issue of finding competent medical professionals to carry out the executions is also not easy to resolve. Some medical professionals, including doctors, are forbidden or discouraged from participating and some refuse. Not all states require medical oversight at executions, although some say the courts should require it.
Death-penalty opponents argue that no state can properly administer a lethal injection without violating the Eighth Amendment. Others say that previous methods should be reconsidered. Hanging, the electric chair and firing squads are all virtually instant deaths and do not require doctors to administer drugs. But they are also often graphic or disturbing to the witnesses, which is why they fell out of favor. Tennessee’s legislature has passed a bill bringing back the electric chair if it cannot find the drugs needed for an execution.
What do you think?
Should states more closely regulate executions by lethal injection? Should medical oversight be required? Are botched executions “cruel and unusual” punishment? Join the discussion and let us know what you think!
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