Why do lethal injections have three drugs?

Answers to your questions about the news.
May 3 2006 6:36 PM

Lethal Injections 101

A history of the deadly cocktail.

Download the MP3 audio version of this story here, or sign up for The Explainer's free daily podcast on iTunes.

"It don't work," complained Ohio death-row inmate Joseph Lewis Clark as prison officials struggled to execute him by lethal injection Tuesday. Last week, the Supreme Court heard from lawyers who say the standard three-drug lethal injection protocol creates the risk of "wanton and gratuitous pain." Why do they use three drugs for lethal injections?

Because that's what they've always done. Oklahoma passed the first lethal-injection statute in May of 1977 in an effort to come up with a more humane way to execute prisoners. (The national ban on execution had just been lifted, and Gary Gilmore had been put to death by firing squad that January.)  The Oklahoma lawmakers declared that "the punishment of death must be inflicted by continuous, intravenous administration of a lethal quantity of an ultra-short-acting barbiturate" combined with a chemical paralytic agent. The first drug (in practice, almost always sodium thiopental) would cause anesthesia, and the second (usually pancuronium bromide) would relax the muscles in the body. Texas passed its own lethal-injection law the following day but used more generic language.

Daniel Engber Daniel Engber

Daniel Engber is a columnist for Slate

Advertisement

The Oklahoma Department of Corrections added the third drug in the cocktail—potassium chloride, which stops the heart—to its lethal-injection protocol the same year. The combination of poisons was supposed to increase the certainty of death. Texas used all three drugs when it conducted the first execution by lethal injection in 1982.

Other states copied their procedures from Oklahoma and Texas. Today, 34 others use the same lethal-injection cocktail. (Only one state, Nebraska, insists on electrocution for its death-row inmates.) When asked in court how they developed their injection protocols, corrections officials have said they learned directly from agencies in other states.

If the three-drug cocktail may cause unnecessary suffering, why don't death-row inmates get the same drugs doctors prescribe for assisted suicide? Terminally ill patients in Oregon can take a large dose by mouth of a barbiturate that puts them in a coma within about five minutes, with an apparently painless death coming around half an hour later. (In some rare cases, an assisted suicide by barbiturates can take as long as two days.) For one thing, corrections officials haven't changed the three-drug protocol because there hasn't been significant pressure to do so until recently. They also may prefer the standard cocktail because it works much faster than straight barbiturates when administered properly. (The lethal-injection cocktail typically kills within 10 minutes.) They also have to deal with involuntary subjects, and it's easier to inject someone who's strapped to a table than it is to force oral medication down his throat.

Got a question about today's news? Ask the Explainer.

Explainer thanks Deborah Denno of Fordham University.

TODAY IN SLATE

Politics

Smash and Grab

Will competitive Senate contests in Kansas and South Dakota lead to more late-breaking races in future elections?

Stop Panicking. America Is Now in Very Good Shape to Respond to the Ebola Crisis.

The 2014 Kansas City Royals Show the Value of Building a Mediocre Baseball Team

The GOP Won’t Win Any Black Votes With Its New “Willie Horton” Ad

Sleater-Kinney Was Once America’s Best Rock Band

Can it be again?

Technocracy

Forget Oculus Rift

This $25 cardboard box turns your phone into an incredibly fun virtual reality experience.

One of Putin’s Favorite Oligarchs Wants to Start an Orthodox Christian Fox News

These Companies in Japan Are More Than 1,000 Years Old

Trending News Channel
Oct. 20 2014 6:17 PM Watch Flashes of Lightning Created in a Lab  
  News & Politics
Politics
Oct. 20 2014 8:14 PM You Should Be Optimistic About Ebola Don’t panic. Here are all the signs that the U.S. is containing the disease.
  Business
Moneybox
Oct. 20 2014 7:23 PM Chipotle’s Magical Burrito Empire Keeps Growing, Might Be Slowing
  Life
Outward
Oct. 20 2014 3:16 PM The Catholic Church Is Changing, and Celibate Gays Are Leading the Way
  Double X
The XX Factor
Oct. 20 2014 6:17 PM I Am 25. I Don't Work at Facebook. My Doctors Want Me to Freeze My Eggs.
  Slate Plus
Tv Club
Oct. 20 2014 7:15 AM The Slate Doctor Who Podcast: Episode 9 A spoiler-filled discussion of "Flatline."
  Arts
Brow Beat
Oct. 20 2014 9:13 PM The Smart, Talented, and Utterly Hilarious Leslie Jones Is SNL’s Newest Cast Member
  Technology
Technocracy
Oct. 20 2014 11:36 PM Forget Oculus Rift This $25 cardboard box turns your phone into an incredibly fun virtual-reality experience.
  Health & Science
Medical Examiner
Oct. 20 2014 11:46 AM Is Anybody Watching My Do-Gooding? The difference between being a hero and being an altruist.
  Sports
Sports Nut
Oct. 20 2014 5:09 PM Keepaway, on Three. Ready—Break! On his record-breaking touchdown pass, Peyton Manning couldn’t even leave the celebration to chance.