The Supreme Court ruling today will expand the opportunities of condemned inmates to challenge lethal injection methods of execution as civil rights claims, Human Rights Watch said today. While not ruling on the constitutionality of lethal injection execution procedures, the court said that inmates who contend that the protocol most commonly used causes unnecessary pain and suffering may go forward with an Eighth Amendment claim under a civil rights statute.
“Now prisoners will have a better chance of challenging a state’s use of a three-drug concoction as cruel punishment,” said Sarah Tofte, coauthor of the recent Human Rights Watch report, “So Long As They Die: Lethal Injections in the United States.” “As these cases reveal the risk of excruciating pain in lethal injection procedures, states may come to realize that any method of execution is cruel and unusual.”
Lethal injection executions are virtually the only form of execution used to kill prisoners in the United States. Of the 1,026 executions since 1976, 858 were by lethal injection. Every execution in 2005 was by lethal injection.
Mounting evidence suggests at least some prisoners may have suffered horribly before they died, awake and wracked by pain but unable to move to let anybody know, Human Rights Watch said in its April 2006 report. 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 North Carolina also suggest some prisoners had been inadequately anesthetized.
Dr. Jay Chapman, an Oklahoma medical examiner with no pharmacology experience, invented the lethal injection protocol in 1977 without doing any research. The three-drug sequence he devised is now used in all 37 lethal injection states; Nebraska executes prisoners by electrocution.
Under the protocol, the condemned prisoner is strapped to a gurney and injected first with a massive dose of the anesthetic sodium pentothal, which should render him unconscious. Next comes pancuronium bromide, a drug that paralyzes voluntary muscles, including the lungs and diaphragm, but leaves a conscious prisoner able to experience pain. Then potassium chloride brings swift cardiac arrest.
Potassium chloride is known to be so painful that U.S. veterinarian guidelines prohibit its use on domestic animals unless the vet first ensures they are deeply unconscious. No such safeguards are routinely observed for lethal injection executions.
“It’s clear that more care is taken in the U.S. for killing dogs than for killing prisoners,” Tofte said.
The executioners, normally corrections officers rather than medical staff, stay behind a wall injecting drugs into IV tubes, and cannot necessarily see the prisoner. No one makes sure the prisoner is unconscious after the anesthetic is administered; if he is not, he will be aware of suffocating from the pancuronium bromide and will feel the fiery pain of potassium chloride coursing through his veins to his heart.
Human Rights Watch opposes capital punishment in all circumstances and calls for its abolition. But until the 38 death penalty states and the federal government abolish capital punishment, international human rights law requires them to ensure they have developed a method of execution that will reduce, to the greatest extent possible, the condemned prisoner’s risk of mental or physical pain and suffering.
“Judges will no longer be able to dismiss the prisoners’ challenges to lethal injection protocols as frivolous stalling tactics,” Tofte said. “Even those convicted of the most heinous crimes are entitled to humane treatment.”
To read the Human Rights Watch report, “So Long As They Die: Lethal Injections in the United States,” please visit:
For further information, please contact:
In New York, Sarah Tofte: +1-212-377-9408; or +1-917-279-7651 (mobile)
In Washington, D.C., Jennifer Daskal: +1-202-365-3758 (mobile)