In what is being called another botched execution, in which Arizona convicted murderer Joseph Rudolph Wood took nearly two hours to die on Wednesday, questions have again arisen surrounding lethal injections and whether or not this method of putting convicted criminals to death should be continued. Concerns include whether the method violates prisoners’ 8th Amendment rights of not being subjected to cruel and unusual punishment.
Typically states have used a three-drug combination to carry out executions. Since 2009 most states have adopted one- or two-drug combinations due to shortages in obtaining the necessary medications. Drug companies are increasingly unwilling to manufacture drugs to be used for lethal injections, leading to the necessity of using new combinations and fewer drugs to carry out the procedures. Many companies that make the drugs that can be used in executions block their use for that purpose.
The only U.S. manufacturer of sodium thiopental, Hospira, that is the drug that makes the person unconscious, stopped producing it. They then began production in Italy in 2011, where there is no death penalty, under the condition that the drug would not be used for executions in the U.S. Hospira shut down production again when it could not guarantee that those conditions were being met. The European Union bans its manufacturers from exporting the drug to the U.S. at all.
Lethal injection is the primary means of execution in all 32 states that have the death penalty. Texas was the first to use lethal injection, on December 7, 1982. Arizona traditionally has used a combination of three drugs in the injection: an anesthetic such as sodium thiopental, a paralytic agent such as Pavulon to prevent flailing and a third agent to stop the heart such as potassium chloride. Due to the difficulties in obtaining these drugs, eight states have gone to a one or two-drug method that consists of a lethal dose of an anesthetic or sedative.
Wood was given a two-drug combination that included the anesthetic midazolam followed by an overdose of hydromorphone, also known as Dilaudid. The anesthetic was intended to render Wood unconscious and the hydromorphone was to slow breathing and stop the heart. Typically the lethal injection process takes 10-15 minutes, unlike the Arizona prisoner who remained alive for nearly two hours after receiving the drugs, with the question of why still unanswered and pending investigation.
Controversy swirls around the new drug combinations used in lethal injections, mainly the use of midazolam as the first drug that is used to make the prisoner unconscious. This is the first drug that was used in Wood’s execution on Wednesday. It was also used in two other recent lethal injections that did not proceed as expected. Dennis McGurie was executed in Ohio in January, dying while gasping, making choking sounds and clenching his fists. Clayton Lockett also received midazolam first, executed in Oklahoma in April. Locket’s execution was halted after he convulsed and spoke instead of becoming unconscious. The execution was stopped, but Lockett died anyway after about 45 minutes. The National Institutes of Health reports that midazolam has side effects including seizures, difficulty breathing an uncontrollable shaking.
Although executions using the previous three-drug combinations have apparently not led to such prolonged deaths, there are still critics of using sodium thiopental. University of Miami scientists have said that it does not last long enough as an anesthetizing agent, resulting in the inmate potentially becoming alert during the execution, although still paralyzed by the second drug. The fear is that the inmate would be suffering through the execution, paralyzed but completely aware.
The shortage of drugs for lethal injections is causing some death-penalty states to consider returning to the use of the electric chair for executions. Since the U.S. reinstated capital punishment in 1976 after suspending it in 1972, electrocution has been used in 158 executions. Tennessee is one state that has an electric chair and Gov. Bill Haslam signed a law in May that would make the electric chair the automatic backup if the state is unable to procure the drugs needed for lethal injection. Use of the electric chair was largely discontinued in most states in favor of lethal injection, originally viewed as more humane.
The last electric chair execution was Robert Gleason, in Virginia on January 16, 2013. Gleason chose to go to the electric chair to hasten his execution. Lynda Block, executed in Alabama on May 10, 2002, was the last prisoner put to death by electric chair without being given a choice.
A recent NBC News poll found that almost one in five people are in favor of using the electric chair as the primary form of execution if lethal injection is no longer available. Twenty percent were in favor of the gas chamber, 18 percent for the electric chair, 12 percent in favor of using a firing squad and 8 percent in favor of hanging. The rest stated that if lethal injections are no longer available the death penalty should be abandoned.
Lethal injection was adopted by the Arizona state legislature as an execution option in 1992 after years of using the gas chamber, due to questions that arose from the reportedly gruesome execution of Donald Harding by cyanide gas. Lethal injection was thought to be more humane, although the gas chamber still remains as an option in Arizona.
By Beth A. Balen
Also see Guardian Liberty Voice
Death Penalty Information Center (States With and Without the Death Penalty)
Death Penalty Information Center (State by State Lethal Injection)
Death Penalty Information Center (Lethal Injection Overview)