Why the states are standing by their outdated, messy lethal-injection protocols.

The law, lawyers, and the court.
Nov. 12 2007 7:01 PM

Die Hardest

Why the states are standing by their outdated, messy lethal-injection protocols.

Syringe. Click image to expand.
Would a modified drug cocktail make lethal injection more humane?

It's unofficial: The country is in the throes of a de facto moratorium on the death penalty. In the wake of a Supreme Court decision in September to take a case testing the constitutionality of Kentucky's lethal-injection protocol, and after a series of stays granted by state courts and the Supreme Court, prosecutors in Texas and elsewhere announced they will stop seeking execution dates. This past October was the first month in three years in which nobody was executed in the United States.

Dahlia Lithwick Dahlia Lithwick

Dahlia Lithwick writes about the courts and the law for Slate. Follow her on Twitter.

As the machinery of death clanks to a temporary halt, the real question is whether this pause in executions is going to lead to more humane death chambers or an all-out ban. Death-penalty opponents are hoping for the latter. John Holdridge, director of the ACLU's Capital Punishment Project, says the moratorium "presents a rare opportunity to reflect on why we remain the only advanced Western democracy to retain this punishment." The American Bar Association just released a controversial report calling for a serious re-examination of the ways the death penalty is administered—highlighting pervasive problems with DNA evidence, racial disparity in death sentences, the state of the capital defense bar, and overzealous prosecutors. Wisconsin Sen. Russ Feingold seized the moment to draw attention to his Federal Death Penalty Abolition Act. It's not surprising that foes of capital punishment are trying to turn this spontaneous moratorium into a permanent one. But why are death-penalty supporters letting it happen?

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The question the court will tackle in the Kentucky case, Baze v. Rees(PDF), is a narrow one, and the likelihood of a ruling resulting in an all-out ban on executions is pretty much zero. The court will consider the standard by which to evaluate whether the state's lethal-injection protocol carries an "unnecessary" risk of pain, prohibited by the Eighth Amendment. The justices will look at the three-drug cocktail used in Kentucky and all but one of the 37 states (PDF) that permit capital punishment (Nebraska still uses electrocution). The case comes down to a constitutional quest for the somewhat-but-not-too-painful death, with different lower courts employing a mess of legal standards, including  "wanton infliction of pain," "excessive pain," "unnecessary pain," "substantial risk," "unnecessary risk," and also "substantial risk of wanton and unnecessary pain."

The prevalent three-drug protocol consists of an anesthetic rendering the victim unconscious, a paralytic that stops his breathing, and a drug that stops his heart. Mounting evidence suggests some prisoners may be suffering horribly. As Justice John Paul Stevens tartly pointed out at oral argument on a related question, the lethal-injection procedure we use "would be prohibited if applied to dogs and cats." (The American Veterinary Medical Association issued guidelines in 2002 saying the mix of drugs is unacceptable for putting animals to sleep.) Terminally ill patients in Oregon can swallow a large dose of a single barbiturate that will put them in a coma in minutes, and a state commission in Tennessee recommended this in lieu of the three-drug system. Even defenders of the current protocol concede it was simply copied from state to state, each cheerfully adopting the 1977 version cooked up by Dr. Jay Chapman, formerly chief medical examiner in Oklahoma, who devised the system as a hasty alternative to the firing squad. A state-to-state game of telephone: That's how the national patchwork of lethal-injection protocols—many developed and administered in secret—was born. Thus, at a 1990 meeting with Texas corrections officials to devise a protocol for Louisiana, Texas officials were asked why they used 5 grams of sodium pentothal instead of 2 grams, like other states. According to testimony in a Louisiana appeal, Texas' prison pharmacy director just laughed: "When we did our first execution, the only thing I had on hand was a 5-gram vial. And rather than do the paperwork on wasting 3 grams, we just gave all 5."

Dr. Chapman himself recently acknowledged that it's probably time to change the method. He suggests an anesthetic called Diprivan. Michael Rushford, president of the Criminal Justice Legal Foundation, a pro-death-penalty group, agrees the cocktail is "open to criticism." He would suggest carbon monoxide instead.

If academics, doctors, and prisoners—as well as death-penalty supporters and the guy who invented the protocol—have been criticizing the three-drug protocol for years, why haven't the states switched methods? And once the court agreed to hear Baze, why didn't Texas simply change to barbiturates and keep its executions on schedule? You'd expect the states to choose doling out the barbiturates instead of acceding to a monthslong moratorium that will offer the public a chance to see that life without the death penalty may still be worth living.

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