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How Lethal Injections Became the Go-To Method for Executions in America | The Nation

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Greg Mitchell

Greg Mitchell

Media, politics and culture.

How Lethal Injections Became the Go-To Method for Executions in America

Much has been written, here and elsewhere, about executions in American since the botched lethal injection in Oklahoma two weeks ago. Mother Jones published an interesting piece yesterday on the incompetents and ethically challenged individuals who actually oversee or admininster the deadly chemicals. But for background on how this came to be, here’s an excerpt from my recent e-book on the history of, and current debate over, capital punishment in the United States, Dead Reckoning.

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In 1982, Texas prisoner Charles Brooks became the first person executed by a mixture of sodium thiopental, pavulon and potassium chloride—the so-called lethal injection. The dream of an anesthesized execution, proposed by G.W. Peck in 1847, was finally realized, if in a quite different form.

As the death penalty moratorium of the 1970s ended, many states began to pick up the needle. The British had rejected lethal injections in the 1950s feeling it was an undignified way to die—preferring hanging instead. But growing discomfort with the aesthetics of gassing and electrocution promoted a slow changeover in the United States. California governor Ronald Reagan likened lethal injections to putting an injured horse out of his misery—”the horse goes to sleep—that’s it…”

The preference for lethal injection can be explained by its apparent ease, cleanliness and relative lack of drama. It is almost clinical, familiar to anyone who has ever visited a hospital: there are IV lines, gurneys, a doctor, technicians, prescription drugs. Sedation is the word. “They put you out,” a victims’ right advocate in Tennessee explains, “but in this case you never wake up.” A Baptist chaplain in Texas who has witnessed almost forty executions calls it “as humane as any form of death you can find. Basically, they go to sleep….”

The sleep metaphor suggests that the execution is merciful, peaceful, for the prisoner’s own good, as well as society’s—like having compassion for a favorite old dog who has turned rabid. An ACLU leader in Ohio charges that it is an attempt to sanitize or “pretty up” the process, to “make a practice that is absolutely barbaric somehow more palatable to the public.” This has been a historical process, according to Richard Dieter, executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center in Washington, DC, “There’s been a keen interest in keeping up with the state of technology,” he explains. “People want execution to look modern and antiseptic.”

After witnessing an execution by needle in Missouri, writer Christopher Hitchens observed that this method “is supposed to be more tranquil and predictable and benign than the various forms of burning, shooting, strangling and gassing that in the past have squeezed themselves through the ‘cruel and unusual’ rubric. It looks and feels—to the outsider at least—more like a banal medical procedure” but “this medicalized ‘putting down’ is designed to leach the drama and agony out of the business; to transform it into a form of therapy for society and ‘closure’…” Indeed, in contrast to electrocution, Hollywood movies climaxing with a lethal injection are rare (Dead Man Walking being a prominent exception).

Whether death by needle is easier for the executed is an open question, but surely it is easier for the executioners. “By wrapping punishment in a therapeutic cloak, the whole process leading to that final moment feels less aversive to those who are required to participate and is therefore more bearable,” observes Dr. Jerome D. Gorman.

There is a deeper issue, as well. “The use of a well-known medical tool, general anesthesia, for execution blurs the distinctions between healing and killing, between illness and guilt,” Gorman observes. “That is why it would be effective in easing the distress of those involved. That is also precisely why physicians should oppose it. Those distinctions between illness and guilt, between therapy and punishment, are important to a just society. Once before in the twentieth century, physicians (in Nazi Germany) allowed themselves to play a role in blurring these distinctions, with disastrous consequences.”

From another point of view, this relative “tranquility” is equally regrettable. “For these people who cause so much suffering, it is too easy of a way out,” a victims’ rights activist complains. The California-based Children’s Protection and Advocacy Coalition charged that lethal injections merely sanitized executions, a misguided form of euthanasia. “Learn to burn,” one member of the group advised the public, adding that “rapists don’t burn by themselves, they need your help.”

In this now familiar procedure, the prisoner is strapped to a gurney and needles inserted in his arms. At a signal, three chemicals begin to flow in succession: an anesthetic (sodium thiopentone), a drug to paralyze the respiratory muscles (pancuronium bromide) and a third drug to halt the heart (potassium chloride).

During the early years of lethal injection, prisons designed their own procedures in a somewhat experimental, haphazard fashion, often leading to glitches. Then, in 1989, Missouri tried out a new lethal-injection system designed by the Holocaust revisionist Fred Leuchter. The execution of George “Tiny” Mercer became the subject of a widely viewed documentary for British television that some found “eerily reminiscent of Nazi nightmares,” as James McGiven put it in his theological survey of the death penalty. Leuchter himself was proud of what happened, calling it “an interesting first, not only for myself and the machine, but also for the state of Missouri, it being the first execution conducted there in many years, it being in Middle America, and it being in the middle of the Bible Belt.”

Still, even with improved delivery systems, mistakes often occur. One prisoner remained conscious, struggling, for about ten minutes, due to a clogged catheter. In another case an IV popped out of an inmate’s arm, spewing deadly chemicals toward the witness box. In Texas, a condemned man had such a violent physical reaction to the drugs—gasping and choking—that one of the witnesses fainted, knocking over another witness. In several cases officials had such a hard time finding a vein, the inmate would lay strapped on his death cot for more than forty minutes, awaiting his doom.

Two years later, in Texas, Joseph Cannon, who was condemned to die when he was only 17, lay on the gurney, repeatedly said he was sorry for what he had done, and then closed his eyes as the chemicals flowed. Then he opened his eyes, turned to a window where the witnesses were standing and said, “It’s come undone.” The drapes were pulled on the window, and a prison chaplain informed the witnesses as they were led outside, “His blood vein blew. He is doing fine. They are just going to restart it.” Fifteen minutes later the witnesses were brought back in, and the execution proceeded. Cannon was pronounced dead thirty-four minutes after the first injection was aborted.

In other cases, a small error in dosage may leave prisoners conscious but paralyzed—seemly peaceful and dead but still slowly dying. Of course, the only person who knows that for sure is not in any position to testify to it. A Texas official complained that attorneys seeking to stop all executions demand “proof” that it is “totally and completely painless. I don’t know how you go about satisfying that. You can never call them [the executed] back and say, ‘Did this cause you pain?’”

It all boils down to: there is no easy way to end a life.

Still, among those most affected—the condemned—lethal injection apparently seems like the best of several bad options. In states where prisoners are given a choice, they almost invariably select the needle. Those who dissent often claim they do so as a form of protest. One convicted killer said he wanted his passing to be “ugly,” in the gas chamber, where he figured it would look like murder. An inmate in Maryland chose the gas chamber for the same reason—but later changed his mind and switched to injection to spare his family needless pain.

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