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Human rights law is predicated on recognition of the inherent dignity and the equal and inalienable rights of all people, including even those who have committed terrible crimes. It prohibits torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading punishment. Human Rights Watch believes these rights cannot be reconciled with the death penalty, a form of punishment unique in its cruelty and finality, and a punishment inevitably and universally plagued with arbitrariness, prejudice, and error. Thus our first recommendation is that states and the federal government abolish the death penalty. If governments do not choose to abolish capital punishment, they must still heed human rights principles by ensuring their execution methods are chosen and administered to minimize the risk a condemned prisoner will experience pain and suffering. As state lethal injection protocols have never been subjected to serious medical and scientific scrutiny, Human Rights Watch recommends that each state suspends its lethal injection executions until it has convened a panel of anesthesiologists, pharmacologists, doctors, corrections officials, prosecutors, defense attorneys, and judges to determine whether or not its lethal injection executions as currently practiced are indeed the most humane form of execution.

To State and Federal Corrections Agencies

  • Review lethal injection protocols by soliciting input from medical and scientific experts, and by holding public hearings and seeking public comment.
  • Stop using drugs that do not minimize the pain and suffering of the condemned inmate. Ensuring the comfort of witnesses and the executioners should not be a determining factor in which drugs are chosen for lethal injections. More specifically, discontinue the use of pancuronium bromide or any other neuromuscular blocking agent, because it masks any pain and suffering endured by the inmate. Replace potassium chloride with drugs that do not cause excruciating pain.
  • Anesthesia must be used in all lethal injections that involve painful or paralyzing drugs. If anesthesia is used, ensure that trained personnel are present and able to monitor the prisoner’s consciousness to ensure he is deeply and fully anesthetized before any subsequent painful drugs are administered. Such personnel would stand beside the prisoner throughout the execution.
  • Keep, retain, and make publicly available execution records, including execution logs, autopsy reports, and toxicology reports.
  • Conduct periodic reviews of lethal injection protocols to ensure they reflect medical and pharmacological developments. 

To State Legislators and the U.S. Congress

  • Abolish the death penalty.
  • If the death penalty is not abolished, suspend all lethal injection executions until each state convenes a blue ribbon panel of medical, scientific, legal, judicial, and correctional experts authorized to review and recommend changes to lethal injection execution protocols as necessary to ensure the protocol adopted causes the inmate the least possible pain and suffering.
  • Require corrections departments to adopt the method of execution, including the specific method of lethal injection, that causes the inmate the least possible pain and suffering.

<<previous  |  index  |  next>>April 2006