18 April 2008

U.S. Supreme Court opts for cruel and unusual punishment

About the only thing crueler than killing someone is torturing them when you do it. Despite the Eighth Amendment to the American Constitution which expressly forbids "cruel and unusual punishment," the United States Supreme Court has approved execution by lethal injection which may inflict exactly that.

Lethal injection typically involves three drugs: first sodium thiopental (an anesthetic), then pancuronium bromide (causes muscle paralysis) and finally potassium chloride (stops the heart). The dose of each drug is supposedly sufficient to cause death.

The pancuronium bromide is not administered to make death easier for the prisoner, but to make it easier for the spectators. When the heart-stopping drug potassium chloride hits, it tends to cause spasms which detract from the image of a painless death. Pancuronium bromide, by relaxing the muscles, precludes the spasms thus offering a calmer spectacle. It is entirely unnecessary for the killing.

Unfortunately, the regimen doesn't always go according to plan. Doctors and nurses are forbidden by their organizations from participating in executions, so they are often carried out by incompetent personnel. Dr. Mark Heath, a professor of clinical anesthesia at Columbia University, observes, "There are significant risks that the inmate in Texas' lethal injection procedure will not be rendered unconscious by the sodium thiopental and will therefore experience the psychologically horrific effects of pancuronium bromide." The drug has been condemned by the American Veterinary Medical Association for use in euthanizing animals.

Potassium chloride is reputed to cause excruciating pain. If the prisoner receives insufficient doses of the drugs, when the potassium chloride hits he may be in agony but unable to cry out because his muscles are paralyzed by the pancuronium bromide. He dies an exquisitely painful death.

This appears to be what happened in Florida in 2006 to convicted murderer Angel Diaz. He took over half an hour to die and only then after a second series of injections. After the first series, witnesses reported he seemed to squint and grimace, and attempted to mouth words. Remaining conscious, he would have felt he was being smothered as the pancuronium bromide collapsed his diaphragm and lungs, and then he would have felt the potassium chloride like fire in his veins.

All hope is not lost, however, with the Supreme Court decision. Justice John Paul Stevens, although agreeing that the evidence presented in this case failed to show unconstitutionality, he admitted that for the first time he believes the death penalty itself may be unconstitutional. So the United States may yet depart the company of countries such as China, Iran and Saudi Arabia and join the civilized world in its views on capital punishment.

1 comment:

  1. I understand that the case was undertaken not because it was thought it would be successful, but only to make states halt their executions.