Executed in US may be awake as they suffocate

MIAMI: Some prisoners executed by lethal injection in the United States may die of suffocation while they are still conscious and in pain, University of Miami researchers said in a study that concluded the drugs do not work as intended.

The study, published in the Public Library of Science journal PLoS Medicine, raised new questions about whether the lethal cocktail violates the US constitutional ban on cruel and unusual punishment.

Lethal injection is the primary method of execution for 37 US states and the federal government, though more than a dozen states have halted or suspended the procedure because of legal or ethical questions.

The drugs used are the anaesthetic thiopental, pancuronium bromide to paralyse the muscles and lungs, and the electrolyte potassium chloride to stop the heart.

First adopted by Oklahoma lawmakers looking for a humane alternative to the electric chair, the combination is supposed to produce unconsciousness and then death due to respiratory and cardiac arrest.

America vs. Human Rights

America desperately wants to be viewed as a world leader in human rights — even while it reserves the right, in word and in deed, to engage in human rights violations itself (e.g. Guantanamo, and – despite Goerge Bush’s lies — torture as an official policy).

The death penalty is but one area in which America takes a ‘Do as I say; Not as I do’ approach.

“The United States has long regarded itself as a beacon of human rights, as evidenced by an enlightened constitution, judicial independence, and a civil society grounded in strong traditions of free speech and press freedom. But the reality is more complex; for decades, civil rights and civil liberties groups have exposed constitutional violations and challenged abusive policies and practices. In recent years, as well, international human rights monitors have documented serious gaps in U.S. protections of the human rights of vulnerable groups. Both federal and state governments have nonetheless resisted applying to the U.S. the standards that, rightly, the U.S. applies elsewhere.”
Human Rights Watch

The researchers studied drug dosages and time elapsed until death in 42 lethal injections in North Carolina and eight in California.

They concluded the thiopental might have been insufficient to keep the prisoners unconscious in some cases, based on concentrations in their blood after death.

They said the potassium chloride injection, which causes an intense burning sensation, did not reliably hasten death because prisoners given it died no faster than those who got only the other two drugs.

They concluded that pancuronium was the only reliably fatal part of the cocktail, meaning the executed may actually have died of suffocation as it paralysed their lungs.

In cases where the injection was botched and the drugs were delivered into the muscle or under the skin rather than into the veins, prisoners would by fully aware as the paralysis took hold and the potassium chloride was administered, said Teresa Zimmers, who led the study.

“It would sort of be the equivalent of slowly suffocating while being burned alive,” Zimmers said in a telephone interview.

The researchers said that was likely the experience of Florida inmate Angel Diaz, who took 34 minutes to die in December after the needles were inserted improperly.

Doctors and nurses are ethically barred from administering lethal injections. But even when the injections were done properly, there were doubts the anaesthesia was adequate to avert suffering.

It was unclear whether levels measured in the blood after death accurately reflected those before death, the authors cautioned. But they said execution witnesses have reported that some prisoners were visibly distressed even after the anaesthesia was injected and in four cases, they tried to sit up.

“The reason that people support lethal injection is because they perceive it to be a humane medical procedure,” said Dr Leonidas Koniaris, associate professor of surgery and senior author on the report. “Here we provide more evidence that it is anything but that.”

Since the US Supreme Court upheld the death penalty in 1976, the United States has executed 1070 people, 901 of them by lethal injection, according to the Death Penalty Information Centre.

The report is available: here.

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This post was last updated: Tuesday, April 24, 2007 at 1:34 PM, Central European Time (CET)