The drugs used to execute prisoners in the United States sometimes fail to
work as planned, causing slow and painful deaths that probably violate
constitutional bans on cruel and unusual punishment, a new medical review of
dozens of executions concludes.
Even when administered
properly, the three-drug lethal injection method appears to have caused some
inmates to suffocate while they were conscious and unable to move, instead of
having their hearts stopped while they were sedated, scientists said in a report
published Monday by the online journal PLoS Medicine.
A hospital table, equipped with Velcro straps is shown in the
chamber at the Osborne Correctional Institution in Somers, Conn. in this
2004 file photo. [AP]
No scientific groups have ever validated that lethal injection is humane, the
authors write. Medical ethics bar doctors and other health professionals from
taking part in executions.
The study concluded that the typical "one-size-fits-all" doses of anesthetic
do not take into account an inmate's weight and other key factors. Some inmates
got too little, and in some cases, the anesthetic wore off before the execution
was complete, the authors found.
"You wouldn't be able to use this protocol to kill a pig at the University of
Miami" without more proof that it worked as intended, said Teresa Zimmers, a
biologist there who led the study.
The journal's editors call for abolishing the death penalty, writing: "There
is no humane way of forcibly killing someone."
Lethal injection has been adopted by 37 states as a cheaper and more humane
alternative to electrocution, gas chambers and other execution methods.
But 11 states have suspended its use after opponents alleged it is
ineffective and cruel. The issue came to a head last year in California, when a
federal judge ordered that doctors assist in killing Michael Morales, convicted
of raping and murdering a teenage girl. Doctors refused, and legal arguments
continue in the case.
In 2005 alone, at
least 2,148 people were killed by lethal injection in 22 countries, the
editors write, citing Amnesty International figures. Of the 53 executions in the
United States in 2006, all but one were by lethal injection.
The new review was written by many of the same authors who touched off
controversy when they published a 2005 report suggesting that many inmates were
conscious and possibly suffering when the last of the drugs was given.
That report was criticized for its methodology, which relied on blood samples
taken from prisoners hours after executions.
The new paper looked at the executions of 40 prisoners in North Carolina
since 1984 and about a dozen in California, plus incomplete information from
Florida and Virginia. The authors analyzed details such as the dose the inmates
received, their weight and the time they needed to die.
Most states use three drugs - thiopental, an anesthetic;
pancuronium bromide, a nerve blocker and muscle paralyzer; and potassium
chloride, a drug to stop the heart. Each is supposed to be capable of killing
all by itself, but if not, the anesthetic is supposed to render the inmate
unconscious while the other drugs do the job.