Governor Mike Rounds has postponed the lethal injection of convicted murderer Elijah Page until the South Dakota legislature fixes the discrepancy between the “outdated” two-drug execution protocol currently on the law books and the three-drug protocol supported by the state’s corrections officials. Governor Rounds is correct that the state legislature needs to take another look at South Dakota’s lethal injection protocol, but he is wrong to think the three-drug protocol is the fix.
Although most people believe the three-drug protocol to be painless, mounting evidence suggests that it is a very painful way to die.
Dr. Jay Chapman, an Oklahoma medical examiner with no pharmacology experience, invented the three drug lethal injection protocol in 1977 without undertaking any research. This protocol, which South Dakota officials recommended for Page’s execution, is now used in the 36 other states that permit execution by lethal injection. However, none of these states has ever subjected the protocol to close scrutiny by pharmacologists or the public; indeed, most states have gone to great lengths to keep the public from knowing how lethal injections are conducted, and how the inmates actually died.
The standard lethal injection works like this: The condemned prisoner is strapped to a gurney and injected with a massive dose of the anesthetic sodium pentothal, which should render him unconscious. Next he is injected with pancuronium bromide, a drug that paralyzes voluntary muscles, including the lungs and diaphragm. Finally, he is injected with potassium chloride, which should bring swift cardiac arrest.
The problem, however, is that if the anesthetic does not render the prisoner unconscious, he will experience tremendous pain-- he will feel himself suffocating from the pancuronium bromide and will feel his veins burning up as the potassium chloride courses to his heart.
Potassium chloride is known to be so painful that U.S. veterinarian guidelines prohibit its use on domestic animals unless a vet first ensures they are deeply unconscious. No such safeguards are observed for human executions. No one stays at the prisoner’s side to make sure he is in fact deeply anesthetized and unconscious before the second and third drugs are administered.
Execution logs from six recent executions in California reveal that prisoners’ chests were still moving regularly up and down long after the anesthetic in the three-drug protocol should have stopped their breathing – suggesting they were awake and suffering. Toxicology reports from executions in Missouri and North Carolina also suggest some prisoners had been inadequately anesthetized before they were killed.
Executions are inherently cruel. But South Dakota officials have a duty to ensure their execution protocols inflict the least possible pain on condemned inmates. Elijah Page may have killed without conscience or care, but that does not give South Dakota the right to do the same.