All US states that conduct lethal injection executions should immediately impose a moratorium on the death penalty and order a review of their execution procedures, Human Rights Watch said today. The urgency of such scrutiny was underscored today by a California court ruling and the decision by Florida’s governor that current methods require immediate review, Human Rights Watch said.
All 37 states that conduct lethal injection executions use the same three-drug method and basic protocol.
“Every day the evidence mounts that the United States is using unacceptably cruel methods to put people to death,” said Jamie Fellner, director of the US program at Human Rights Watch. “After so many botched executions, states cannot continue to execute prisoners using their current methods.”
A federal court ruling issued today said that California must review its procedure for lethal injection executions because the present method is “broken.”
The decision comes as state lethal injection protocols are under increasing scrutiny around the country because of concerns that they cause unnecessary pain and suffering before death, as documented by the April 2006 Human Rights Watch report, “So Long as They Die: Lethal Injections in the United States”
In Florida, Governor Jeb Bush ordered a commission of inquiry into the execution by lethal injection of Angel Nieves Diaz on December 13, and halted the signing of any new death warrants until he hears back from the commission.
Bush’s decision came after an autopsy revealed that Diaz had suffered burns on his arms during an execution that lasted 34 minutes because lethal chemicals intended for his veins had mistakenly entered the soft tissue in his arms. In September 2006, Human Rights Watch called upon Bush to investigate Florida’s lethal injection protocols because of concerns that condemned prisoners experienced intense and extended pain during executions.
“Up to now, Florida has refused to discuss publicly how it kills its prisoners,” said Fellner. “Bush’s new commission should end that tradition by conducting a thorough and impartial public investigation of its lethal injection protocol with the participation of independent pharmacologists and other experts.”
In California, federal District Judge Jeremy Fogel ruled on December 15 that California’s lethal injections lack “reliability and transparency.” He described the evidence about lethal injections given in court as “deeply disturbing.” He urged Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger of California to correct the many deficiencies with the state’s methods of lethal injection executions because as they are now administered, they pose an “undue risk” of causing pain “so extreme” that it offends the US Constitution’s ban on cruel and unusual punishment.
The lethal injection methods examined by Judge Fogel were concocted in 1977 by an Oklahoma medical examiner with no pharmacology experience. Under this system, the prisoner is injected with a massive dose of the anesthetic sodium pentothal, which should render him unconscious and stop his breathing. 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. When the drugs in the three-drug lethal injection protocol are administered properly, the prisoner should be motionless – as well as unable to feel pain – within a minute or two.
In 2005, Michael Angelo Morales filed suit alleging California’s lethal injection protocol put him at risk of experiencing excruciating pain during his execution. In hearings held in February and September 2006, testimony and execution logs revealed that at least six prisoners’ chests were moving up and down long after the anesthetic drug was administered – suggesting they had not been properly anesthetized. If the prisoners were not sufficiently anesthetized – as the chest movements suggest – they may have felt themselves suffocating from the pancuronium bromide, or they may have felt their veins burning up as the potassium chloride coursed to their hearts. California regulations did not require a determination of the prisoner’s level of anesthesia and consciousness before the second and third drugs were administered.
Information on botched and problematic lethal injections in other states has also prompted other judges and public officials to question the three-drug lethal injection protocol. In July, a federal judge in Missouri suspended the state’s lethal injections after toxicology reports suggested some prisoners had been inadequately anesthetized before they were killed. In September, South Dakota Governor Mike Rounds suspended lethal injections for all the state’s death row inmates because of discrepancies between the state’s lethal injection statute and its Department of Corrections lethal injection protocol. Earlier this year, a judge in North Carolina temporarily halted lethal injections after toxicology reports suggested prisoners may have been awake and suffering during their lethal injections. There are at least 41 lethal injection challenges currently in federal courts across the country.
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.
“States like California and Florida can tinker with the death penalty all they want, but at the end of the day, they are still walking a prisoner into a room, strapping him down, and executing him,” said Fellner. “That is inherently cruel punishment.”