The drugs used to execute prisoners in the United States sometimes fail to work as planned, causing slow and painful deaths that probably violate constitutional bans on cruel and unusual punishment, a new medical review of dozens of executions concludes.
Even when administered properly, the three-drug lethal injection method appears to have caused some inmates to suffocate while they were conscious and unable to move, instead of having their hearts stopped while they were sedated, scientists said in a report published Monday by the online journal PLoS Medicine.
No scientific groups have ever validated that lethal injection is humane, the authors write. Medical ethics bar doctors and other health professionals from taking part in executions.
The study concluded that the typical “one-size-fits-all” doses of anesthetic do not account for an inmate’s weight and other key factors. Some inmates got too little, and in some cases the anesthetic wore off before the execution was complete.
“You wouldn’t be able to use this protocol to kill a pig at the University of Miami” without more proof that it worked as intended, said Teresa Zimmers, a biologist who led the study.
The journal’s editors call for abolishing the death penalty: “There is no humane way of forcibly killing someone.”
Lethal injection has been adopted by 37 states as a cheaper and more humane alternative to electrocution, gas chambers and other execution methods.
But 11 states have suspended its use after opponents alleged it is ineffective and cruel.
In 2005 alone, at least 2,148 people were killed by lethal injection in 22 countries, especially China, where fleets of mobile execution vans are used, the editors write, citing Amnesty International figures. Of the 53 executions in the United States in 2006, all but one were by lethal injection.
The new review was written by many of the same authors who touched off controversy when they published a 2005 report suggesting that many inmates were conscious and possibly suffering when the last of the drugs was given.
That report was criticized for its methodology, which relied on blood samples taken hours after executions.
The new paper looked at 40 executions in North Carolina since 1984 and about a dozen in California, plus incomplete information from Florida and Virginia. The authors analyzed details such as the dose the inmates received, their weight and the time they needed to die.
Death penalty proponents complained the report’s conclusions were based on scant scientific evidence.
“It’s more like political science than medical science,” said Mike Rushford, president of Criminal Justice Legal Foundation in Sacramento, Calif.
Editors said they sent the manuscript to three independent medical experts for review – an anesthesiologist, a forensic pathologist and the overseer of a critical care unit, plus a lawyer.
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