Tuesday, April 24, 2007

Study questions humane nature of lethal injection

Tuesday, April 24, 2007

Inmates executed by lethal injection may in some cases die by "chemical asphyxiation" while conscious but unable to move, according to a new analysis of California and North Carolina executions.

The study appearing in the online edition of PLoS Medicine _ a San Francisco-based medical journal _ was authored by the same team of doctors and death penalty opponents who raised similar concerns about the procedure in the British medical journal The Lancet in 2005.

That earlier study, which said sub-potent amounts of the anesthetic sodium pentothal were found in the corpses of executed inmates, helped to propel the current debate as to whether lethal injection is more humane or another form of "cruel and unusual punishment."

Lethal injections are typically performed by infusing through an intravenous line overdoses of three chemicals in succession: sodium pentothal, to render the inmate unconscious; potassium chloride, to stop the heart; and pancuronium bromide, to stop respiration.

Dr. Leonidas Koniaris, a surgeon at the University of Miami in Florida and lead author of both papers, said the amount of sodium pentothal used in executions _ particularly the 3 grams employed in North Carolina _ may not be sufficient to knock out the condemned inmates while the two other chemicals do their lethal work. California's protocol required 5 grams.

Either "dose may not be associated with the induction of anesthesia, particularly in bigger men," he said.

As a consequence, during the course of the execution, the condemned man or woman may experience severe pain when the second dose of chemicals _ potassium chloride _ is infused to stop the heart. "It would cause a burning sensation that would be extremely painful," Koniaris said.

Data from California suggest, he said, that inmates died two to nine minutes after potassium chloride was administered, which raises the prospect that the death may ultimately come from administration of the third chemical, pancuronium bromide, which paralyzes the lungs.

"In such cases, death by suffocation would occur in a paralyzed inmate fully aware of the progressive suffocation and the potassium-induced sensation of burning," the authors concluded.

On May 15, California Department of Corrections is scheduled to present a new proposal for lethal injection procedures to U.S. District Court judge Jeremy Fogel, who has blocked executions in the state since February 2006, declaring that the existing protocols were "intolerable under the constitution" but could be repaired.

His decision held up the execution of Michael Morales, a Stockton man convicted of the murder of 17-year-old Terri Winchell, who was raped and beaten to death in 1981.

Kent Scheidegger, legal director of the Criminal Justice Legal Foundation, in Sacramento, said that "all methods of execution involve some pain, and we know that."

He said that if a condemned criminal is administered just the same amount of anesthetic that puts a patient under for surgery, "that would be sufficient to make it not cruel."

Koniaris said his latest study shows that even if the procedures are carried out properly, they may not provide the humane sort of ending envisaged by the public.

"The conventional view of lethal injection leading to an invariably peaceful and painless death is questionable," the authors concluded.

Koniaris said he had no intention of trying to find a way to improve the process. "That's a line most ethicists would not cross," he said.

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