Sunday, 14 October 2007

High court should ban lethal injections

By David A. Love
Story updated at 2:44 AM on Sunday, October 14, 2007

The Supreme Court should outlaw lethal injection as cruel and unusual punishment.

This term, the nation's highest court has agreed to hear a case challenging lethal injection on the grounds that it violates the Eighth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.

Introduced in 1978, lethal injection was supposed to be a better alternative to hanging, the gas chamber, firing squad and electrocution - a clean, clinical, painless, more humane and therefore more acceptable form of capital punishment. It is used in 37 of the 38 death penalty states. Only Nebraska still prefers the electric chair.

Almost all states use the same three-drug cocktail of sodium thiopental (sodium pentothal), which induces unconsciousness; pancuronium bromide (or Pavulon), which causes muscle paralysis; and potassium chloride, which stops the heart.

But there are problems with lethal injection.

Death penalty critics say that sodium thiopental can wear off before the patient's heart stops, causing extreme physical and mental anguish. Moreover, the prisoner is in a chemical straitjacket and cannot tell anyone that he or she is in pain.

In its recent report, "Execution by Lethal Injection: A Quarter Century of State Poisoning," Amnesty International notes that Texas, which executes more people than any other state, has banned the use of these chemicals on cats and dogs because of the pain they can cause.
The botched execution of Angel Diaz has added urgency to this case. The state of Florida put Diaz to death on Dec. 13, 2006. But it took 37 minutes and two administrations of the drugs to get the job done. The first needle missed his vein, and Diaz was seen moving, blinking and mouthing words for 24 minutes.

Two Kentucky death row inmates - Ralph Baze, 52, and Thomas Clyde Bowling Jr., 54 - sued their state in 2004 and have brought this challenge to the Supreme Court. It marks the first time the Supreme Court has considered the constitutionality of a method of execution since 1879, when the court upheld Utah's firing squad method.

But this case is not just about Baze or Bowling. And it's not just about the lives of the 3,281 men and 59 women who are on death row.

It's also about what kind of country we are.

The justices should realize what more and more Americans are beginning to understand: There is no way to make lethal injection, or any other form of execution for that matter, humane.
Capital punishment is cruel and unusual punishment, whether a person is beheaded, strapped to a chair and electrocuted or laced to a gurney and injected with a deadly cocktail. It is a barbaric practice that most of the developed world, including the European Union, has outlawed, and it is a violation of international human rights law.

If these lethal injections are not suitable for pets, surely the court ought to find they are unsuitable for human beings as well.

• Love is a lawyer in Philadelphia. He wrote this for Progressive Media Project, a source of liberal commentary on domestic and international issues affiliated with The Progressive magazine. Write Love at Progressive Media Project, 409 E. Main St. Madison, WI 53703 or e-mail

Published in the Athens Banner-Herald on 101407

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