Thursday, April 17, 2008

Death by Lethal Injection - What's Cruel to Animals is Not Cruel to the Condemned

by Katherine Scardino

Yesterday, the highest court in our land issued a landmark decision about the death penalty in the United States. The United States Supreme Court upheld Kentucky’s method of execution, refusing to rule for condemned petitioner Ralph Baze (pictured below) who claimed that death by lethal injection constitutes cruel and unusual punishment, in violation of the 8th Amendment to the U. S. Constitution.

The issue in this case was based on the lethal "cocktail" that is used to execute people convicted of capital murder and sentenced to die. One drug in this three-drug combination, pancuronium bromide, works its way through the body and basically numbs the nervous system in such a way that the person being executed may feel the excruciating
pain caused by this lethal combination of chemicals but is unable to express his pain and torture. There have been documented cases of patient awareness or "anesthesia awareness" (click here for video explaining phenomenon). During anesthesia awareness, patients undergoing surgery are awake during the procedure - able to feel the pain - but powerless to tell the surgical team that they are aware of the knife cutting through the body. People who have undergone this horrifying experience have been traumatized by the event and have come forward to let the world know about this terrible drug. One patient's post-traumatic stress led him to commit suicide. The phenomenon of patient awareness is horrific enough to have inspired the film Awake.

Veterinarians banned the use of pancuronium bromide to euthanize animals. Even this profession no longer uses this drug in their field because they realized that it was painful and cruel. So why does our Supreme Court believe that it is appropriate for human beings?

Perhaps this subject opens up dialogue about whether capital punishment is "cruel and unusual" - whether we, as a nation of civilized people, believe that killing is a morally justified response to killing. Our courts have stated that we must evolve in our laws based on our evolving standards of decency. We have gone through several different methods of capital punishment in our history - beheading, the body being drawn and quartered, shot, electrocuted - but over time, we have decided that these methods are cruel and inappropriate for our evolving society.

The result of this ruling is that the inmates who have been waiting for their execution will now be on the "fast track" to death. In my area alone, there are six people waiting to die on Death Row. The Supreme Court has now opened the door to more executions - and back to the same old method disclaimed by the vets for their beloved animals. Are we not better than that?


Vanessa Leggett said...

When I witnessed the execution of the man whose murderous acts inspired my career in crime writing, I was surprised by how stoic he appeared through the several minutes it took for him to draw his last breath. But not that surprised, considering his character. This guy knew how to conceal his emotions. (A psychiatrist who examined him said it was the other way around--that he had no emotions to conceal, that any display of emotion was manufactured). Yet his dominant characteristic was his ability to control, himself as well as others. To control what would be written about him, for example, he declined a common courtesy offered by the prison system--the preparation of a special order last meal--because he knew that details of executed inmates' last meals are made public. While eating a turkey sandwich brought to him by his father hours before his death, he told me he didn't want anyone psychoanalyzing what he ate. Now I understand that when he was strapped to the gurney, his frozen facial expression was not his trademark control even in the face of death. It was pancurium bromide masking any expression on his face as the potassium chloride burned through his body.

Vanessa Leggett said...

Make no mistake. My comment above does not mean I have a bleeding heart for those who have taken the lives of others. The man who felt burning in his body during a clean, clinical execution was responsible for murdering and setting fire to his family of five, including his very pregnant sister.

Vanessa Leggett said...

My point? I DID have one - just forgot to share it: No matter how vicious or heartless the crime of the condemned . . . as a civilized society, we should not call the current cocktail "humane," when it's a method of execution the Humane Society no longer uses for euthanizing animals. The criminals might be animals but society should not be.

andy kahan said...

Jose Medillan part of the gang that viciously raped in every way you can imagine, stomped on two defenseless girls with steel-toed boots and assisted in manually strangling them with belt buckles and left their bodies to rot in the woods has been on death row almost 14 years. His victim Jennifer Ertman lived almost as long as the above has on death row.
Yeah "fast-track" after 14 years--Gimme a break.
Try telling Jennifer and Elizabeth's parents about cruel and unusual or better yet how about attending a Parents Of Murdered Children Meeting and see the anguish, the pain, the grief that surviving family members of homicide have to live with daily.

Vanessa Leggett said...

Fine. Then let's get rid of the first drug, sodium pentathol, which--in its current dosage--does not play a part in killing the condemned. Why put the killer "to sleep" before killing? We should go straight to pancurium bromide if it truly is not consered considered cruel or unusual. The killers of Jennifer and Elizabeth deserve the worst punishment imaginable. But our protections under the law are equal, even when that seems egregiously unfair, as in that case. Demagoguery should not trump any civil liberty, even if we do not feel the criminal should be entitled to it.

andy kahan said...

My resentment is reserved for those who make remarks claiming death row inmates will now be "fast tracked" towards execution. Only one of the six Texas Death Row Inmates has spent less than a decade (9)years and the others way over a decade. All of their appeals have been thoroughly heard by numerous courts leaving no doubt as to their respective guilt and it is high time that justice be carried out.

Diane Fanning said...

Being anti-death penalty does not make a person anti-victim. There are many people who object to the death penalty for faith-based reasons. Some of those people are the family members of victims. And some of those have requested that the state not seek the death penalty for the murderer of a loved one because of their personal religious beliefs.

katherine scardino said...

Andy: I appreciate your comments. I hesitated bringing up this subject because I understand the deep feelings most people have about the death penalty - either for it or against it. As a lawyer who tries many capital murder cases, I feel that I have seen the worst that one human could do to another - and in that category would certainly be the Medellin case you mentioned. I am NOT anti-death penalty. I am only opposed to the death penalty in the manner in which it is handled in Texas - the lethal injection issue, but more than that is the issue of disparity among the various jurisdictions as to how the DA decides who shall be charged with a death capital. There are 254 counties in Texas, and we have 254 different means of making that decision.

A. said...

This post is so full of extreme irony.

I haven't had a reason to develop a strong feeling of the dp, one way or the other. It just seems ironic, if not silly to me, that a point made in this post brings in post-traumatic stress disorder and suicide. Neither of which would be a problem for the executed individual.

As for being an evolved (people group? species?), ironically enough, the death row inmate (assuming they're there because of an especially heinous crime against another person) pretty much disproves this theory with their own history and actions.

I can't make the leap into putting much emotional or mental effort in the comfort of an individual, while they suffer for the crime they've committed. It is the only punishment in our society that may actually fit the crime.