Lethal Injection: 30 Years of Hypocrisy

December 7, 2012

lethal injection

TEXAS CODE OF CRIMINAL PROCEDURE, Art. 43.24. TREATMENT OF CONDEMNEDNo torture, or ill treatment, or unnecessary pain, shall be inflicted upon a prisoner to be executed under the sentence of the law.

Hypocrisy: a feigning to be what one is not or to believe what one does not; especially: the false assumption of an appearance of virtue.

30 years ago, just after midnight, Dec. 7, 1982, Texas executed Charlie Brooks with a lethal cocktail of three drugs.  Texas had been execution-free for 18 years, since 1964. The first African American executed in the U.S. since reinstatement of the death penalty in 1976, Brooks’ final words were an Islamic prayer (“There is no God but Allah. Verily do we belong and verily unto Him do we return.”) followed by a “stay strong” to his girlfriend.

He had been sentenced to death for murdering an auto mechanic named David Gregory, but it was unclear if he or his accomplice had pulled the trigger, and the prosecutor had tried to stop the execution.  The courts and the Governor had declined to intervene.  A needle had already been inserted into Brooks’ arm when an unseen prison employee behind a curtain started the flow of lethal drugs.  In seven minutes, after a period of gasping and wheezing, two doctors examined him and Dr. Ralph Gray pronounced him dead.

This was also the first lethal injection execution in the U.S.  Amnesty International said it was “especially repugnant” because “medical techniques and personnel are meant to sustain life, not take it.” There have been over 1,100 lethal injection executions in the U.S. since then, and every state that still executes uses lethal injection as its primary killing method.

Designed to make executions look humane (like pet euthanasia), and to make witnesses to the killings more comfortable, lethal injection has nevertheless run into problems.

  1. There have been dozens of botched executions. There have been bad reactions to the drugs used – spasms, coughing, moans, extreme pain – and execution personnel have had difficulties finding suitable veins, particularly in prisoners who were IV drug users; in some cases inmates have tried to assist executioners in their own death. Just this week, Arizona executioners cut into a leg artery of a condemned prisoner in order to insert the needles.
  2. The medical profession has recoiled from participation in executions, which is a fundamental violation of ethical responsibilities as laid out by the AMA. In addition to doctors, anesthesiologists, nurses, and EMTs have all emphatically stated their opposition to participation in capital punishment.
  3. The pharmaceutical profession and countries exporting drugs used in executions have also tried to disentangle themselves from the degrading world of executions.  Large, well-known transnational pharma companies like Hospira, Novartis, Lundbeck and Fresenius Kabi have spoken out and taken steps to restrict access to their drugs by US executioners.  Both the European Commission (the European Union’s executive governing body), and the government of the UK have imposed strict export controls on drugs that could be used in the US to kill prisoners. Even US authorities have intervened in shadier drug acquisition efforts in places like Georgia and Nebraska.
  4. As objections to executions have mounted, the transparency of the process has correspondingly diminished.  From the outset, one of the drugs used in lethal injections (pancuronium) was included for the purpose of paralyzing the prisoner, effectively masking or concealing any severe pain he might be feeling as he is put to death. For this reason, pancuronium has been banned for use in animal euthanasia, and it is only recently that some states have switched to a one drug protocol that skips this paralytic step. At the same time, states like Missouri and Florida have resorted to so-called “hooded executioner” laws, concealing the identities of those who participate in executions, resulting in a lack of accountability for botched executions or unethical medical participation (or both). This is a government agency killing people, which should require a maximum level of transparency, not masks and hoods.

The result of 30 years of lethal injection has been the perpetuation of a massive hypocrisy. We are killing with drugs and medical professionals who are supposed to heal, while pretending that this deliberate act of violence is peaceful. Politicians spout “tough on crime” rhetoric while someone else carries out the “tough” punishment behind walls and shields of anonymity. We pretend that these staged killings are for victims’ families while ignoring families that don’t want it, and ignoring the fact that the condemned has a family too. Take your pick; the hypocrisy is widespread. And all this is just a subset of the death penalty’s grand hypocrisy: calling for death in order to show our reverence for life.

The history of executions in the US – from hangings and firing squads to the electric chair to lethal injection – is a history of attempting to placate an increasingly squeamish public that is morally unsure about the death penalty.  Lethal injection is designed to anesthetize and paralyze the prisoner while also putting critics of the death penalty to sleep.

Lethal injection is also set up to enable evasion of responsibility. Doctors don’t actually kill the prisoner (they just pronounce death or administer anesthesia), drug companies don’t supply the drugs directly (they are acquired through third parties), judges and juries don’t take part in the killings (they just issue the sentences).  Prison guards, chaplains and wardens don’t kill prisoners either; they merely restrain and/or comfort them. Someone inserts the needles, but someone else (or, at one point in some states, a machine designed by Holocaust denier Fred Leucther) may inject the poison.

The reason states go to such lengths to make it look like no one is getting blood on their hands (literally and figuratively) is because most of us believe, to put it simply, that killing is wrong.  And no amount of anesthesia or secrecy legislation can cover up that basic fact.

So, ultimately it’s all untenable. A public that believes in basic human rights won’t stand forever for state killing, no matter how sanitized or hidden from view or distant from their personal involvement. Those closest to executions (wardens, medical professionals, drug companies) are objecting.  Juries are declining to issue death sentences.  And public opinion at large is dropping.

People are waking up.  And as the illusion of lethal injection is exposed and the repugnance of executions revealed, the public is realizing there is simply no humane way to kill.