Study: Lethal Injection Violates Eighth Amendment

New research into capital punishment by lethal injection has determined that method of execution to be not nearly as humane as once believed. According to the authors of the study, “the conventional view of lethal injection leading to an invariably peaceful and painless death is questionable.” The study was published in the current issue of the journal Public Library of Science (PLoS) Medicine. According to the journal’s editors, “The Eighth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution prohibits cruel and unusual punishment. The results of this paper suggest that current protocols used for lethal injection in the U.S. probably violate this amendment.”

The report, which was led by Dr. Leonidas G. Koniaris of the University of Miami Miller School of Medicine, concluded, “our findings suggest that current lethal injection protocols may not reliably effect death through the mechanisms intended, indicating a failure of design and implementation.” The problem relates to the particular combination of drugs used in current lethal-injection protocols: the barbiturate thiopental, the neuromuscular blocker pancuronium bromide, and the electrolyte potassium chloride.

Researchers studied executions in North Carolina, California, and Virginia, three of the 37 states (in addition to the military and federal government) that can legally impose lethal injection. They determined that “thiopental might not be fatal and might be insufficient to induce surgical anesthesia for the duration of the execution” and that “potassium chloride in lethal injection does not reliably induce cardiac arrest.”

“If thiopental and potassium chloride fail to cause anesthesia and cardiac arrest,” the authors write, “potentially aware inmates could die through pancuronium-induced asphyxiation,” an incredibly painful process. “Because thiopental has no analgesic effects (in fact, it can be antianalgesic), and because pancuronium would prevent movement in response to the sensations of suffocation and potassium-induced burning, a continuous surgical plane of anesthesia is necessary to prevent extreme suffering in lethal injection.”

In an accompanying editorial, the journal’s editors write, “The acceptability of lethal injection under the U.S. Constitution’s Eighth Amendment ban on inhumane punishment has never been established; the data presented by Koniaris and colleagues adds to the evidence that lethal injection is simply the latest in a long line of execution methods that have been found to be inhumane. It is time for the U.S. to join the majority of countries worldwide in recognizing that there is no humane way of forcibly killing someone.”

The editors note that “execution predominantly by lethal injection is still practiced in many countries. During 2005 at least 2,148 people were executed in 22 countries in cases recorded by Amnesty International; the actual numbers were certainly higher. The majority of these executions took place in China, where fleets of mobile execution vans have been deployed to facilitate prompt, low-profile executions by lethal injection. Iran, Saudi Arabia, and the U.S. together with China accounted for 94 percent of executions in 2005.”

Clearly, this is not company that Americans should be proud to be in. There were a total of 53 executions in the United States last year, 52 of which were conducted by lethal injection. However, several states are currently reassessing their protocols for death by injection in response to a growing number of injections that have been mishandled or proven to be ineffective (ie. creating an agonizing demise for the victim). A few states have put a hold on executions until further research is done. A U.S. District Court in California recently ruled that California’s lethal injection protocol was unconstitutional.

“Execution by lethal injection, even if it uses tools of intensive care such as intravenous tubing and beeping heart monitors, has the same relationship to medicine that an executioner’s axe has to surgery,” the editors write. “Nonetheless, there is a need for greater openness in public discussion and consideration of the death penalty, including its unpalatable details.”

It is important to note that the American Medical Association, the American Nurses Association, the Society of Correctional Physicians, and a slate of state medical boards have each banned any participation by medical professionals in executions, calling it unethical. However, this only means that the large majority of executioners are medically untrained and likely incompetent.

“Each of the editors of PLoS Medicine opposes the death penalty,” says the editorial. “It is not our intention to encourage further research to ‘improve’ lethal injection protocols. As editors of a medical journal, we must ensure that research is ethical, and there is no ethical way to establish the humaneness of procedures for killing people who do not wish to die.

“The new data in PLoS Medicine will further strengthen the constitutional case for the abandonment of execution in the U.S. As a moral society, the U.S. should take a leading role in the abandonment of executions worldwide.”

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