Lethal Injections

Recently, on July 23rd, Joseph R Wood III was executed by a new Arizona lethal injection protocol.  The new protocol uses two doses of drugs: 50 mg of midazolam, and 50 mg of hydromorphine.  However on July 23rd, 15 doses of these drugs (750 mg of each total) had to be administered over a period of 114 minutes before Wood was pronounced dead.

During the execution, Wood was reported to have been “gasping and snorting for more than an hour,” according to his attorney in the emergency stay of execution he filed (which was denied).

So then what happened? Why did the execution take two hours to complete?  And why is Arizona using this batch of drugs for executions if they don’t work?

To understand these questions, we must first understand what the previous protocol for lethal injections was in almost all 50 states: the three drug protocol.  The three drugs usually consisted of an anesthetic for making the inmate unconscious, a drug to paralyze the inmate, and a drug to stop the heart.  Combinations of these three types of drugs was used for years in most US states, and there never seemed to be a problem with them.  (However this does not mean the inmate experienced no pain, because it is possible for that to happen without the inmate being able to express his pain to the executioners.)

Then why did most of the country switch to a two-drug, or single-drug method?  Because they no longer have a supply of drugs that was previously available to them.  Most prisons had gotten their lethal injection drug combinations from European countries until 2010, when most Europeans decided lethal injection to be cruel and unusual punishment.  Then prison’s European suppliers stopped producing drugs for prisons to use in executions, however prisons still had a demand to execute their inmates using lethal injection – one of the few methods still acceptable in the US.

With this quick turn around from their suppliers, prisons are being forced to find smaller pharmacies and drug companies to make lethal injection drugs for them, however this solution opens a whole new world of problems.  For instance, how reliable are the drugs that these companies are selling to prisons in completing clean executions? With the recently high number of botched executions, it would seem that they aren’t, which is the reason executions as of late have been further and fewer in-between.

And a large underlying problem is that in order to ensure prisons will continue to have a supplier for future executions, they will not reveal from where their drugs are coming from.  They will not, nor are they legally required to tell the public the names of the companies that supply them.

The 8th amendment to the constitution prohibits cruel and unusual punishment.  Many may argue that after the recent executions where inmates suffered from as few as 20 minutes to as great as an hour is indeed very cruel and unusual punishment.  Some death row lawyers are up in arms over the fear that they will not be able to ensure their client has a quick, clean, painless, and fair execution.  The Emergency Stay of Execution request (as mentioned above) that was filed by Wood’s lawyer mentioned in it the 8th amendment, and how Wood’s 8th amendment rights were being violated during his execution.  Even so, Supreme Court Justice Anthony M. Kennedy denied the stay request.

So whats next? I predict this topic will become more and more frequent in the news until a decision which both prisons and lawyers can agree on is reached.  Could  lethal injections be deemed cruel and unusual punishment?  It is a possibility, however in order to determine this completely, a drug must be tested while in use, and the receiver of the drug must somehow report he is in pain.  The decision will be far away and hard to reach because you can’t ask a dead person what it felt like to die.


Some links for further reading:

Wood’s prolonged execution (Washington Post)

States scrambling to keep using lethal injection (Washington Post)

Kenneth Biros executed using single-drug method (cleveland.com) 

Recent Execution by Missouri (USA Today)



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