Friday, 5 January 2007

Cold facts of execution lead to scary conclusion

John R. Agnew
Cold facts of execution lead to scary conclusion

The News-Press has other writers to do the serious stuff, but I ask your indulgence for this piece because I'm so mad I could spit. If you had ever seen me spit, you would not want to watch it again.

The subject is lethal injection, a sub-heading of capital punishment. The latter has a long and tortuous history, here and worldwide.

The British produced a protocol for hanging based on length of the "drop" and weight of the subject. This was necessary because too long a drop ripped the head off, grossing out the spectators, and too short a drop resulted in slow strangulation, grossing out the spectators. The British wished to avoid grossed-out spectators.

Hanging replaced decapitation, which replaced disemboweling, and I suppose the spectators were pretty grossed-out at these affairs, as well. Burning at the stake produced a lot of screaming, but when done in cold weather was generally acceptable in medieval times, when keeping warm was a concern.

The falling blade used in France and Germany was recommended — but not invented — by Dr. Guillotin, as a more "humane" method of execution. ("Humane" appears to mean "lower animals wouldn't do this.") He claimed the subject would feel "only a slight coolness on the neck." The subject might remain conscious for three or four seconds after his head hit the basket, although not everyone believes this.

Florida joined many other states in converting to lethal injection, but only after later electrocutions resulted in two heads being set on fire and one impressive nosebleed. Again, the main problem is grossing out the spectators/witnesses. Also, it looks bad on the death certificate: "Cause of Death, head set on fire by State of Florida." Let's face it, you just can't sugar-coat this information.

Governor Bush declared a moratorium on executions pending further investigation of the last one. This was successful, after a fashion, and Mr. Diaz died after 34 minutes, a long time for something that should take 10. He didn't appear to be unconscious or paralyzed until shortly before death. This is a problem because the first drug given is Pentothal, which rapidly induces coma, and the second is Tubocurarine, which causes paralysis of everything but the heart. The latter drug, one supposes, is to shield spectators from the possibility that the subject will wake up, because paralysis mimics coma to the observer (although not to the person being executed).

The third injection is a chemical, potassium chloride, given last because it would cause excruciating pain if given to a conscious subject. Potassium stops the heart.

A spokeswoman explained that the process took longer because Diaz had liver disease (which, at autopsy, he did not), and this caused slow metabolism of the drugs. Nice try, lady, but nonsense. Slower metabolism of the drugs would mean a quicker death, but metabolism of massive doses of drugs has no effect on the outcome in this situation—there is insufficient time to make any practical difference.

At autopsy, it was found that the needles were not in the veins (they put one in each arm). The technicians were unaware that the fluids were going into the surrounding tissues. Having started perhaps a thousand IVs, I know everybody misses a vein occasionally, but you don't administer a drug (for any purpose) until you verify a freely-running IV, which takes no more than a minute.

Sometimes it's difficult to enter a vein, no doubt about that, and experience is a big help. Some might recommend more executions, for the experience; I am not one of them.

I would point out here that the people involved in this execution did not know what they were doing and did not know what they were talking about. Zero for two is not good, even for government work. This was simply pathetic.

Then a front page Associated Press story tried to make sense of all this, but gave misinformation about one of the drugs. In my fashion, I am offering better information along with a dollop of opinion.

Everything you read about the medical science of lethal injection is colored by the writer's view of capital punishment. This is inescapable. You can easily tell that I have a bias, but how can anyone be totally objective about such a subject? It's not as impersonal as rules for solving an algebra problem.

Courts have difficulty deciding what constitutes "cruel and inhuman punishment." The justice system may have difficulty deciding who is guilty and who is merely available and poor. The system may have difficulty providing the accused with a competent lawyer. Juries may be prejudiced for or against the accused for racial or economic reasons. Eyewitnesses are notoriously unreliable, yet their testimony is given great weight. It gets very complicated.

The State of Florida has been severely challenged by electrical and pharmacological technology, so maybe the pragmatic conclusion is to return to low-tech burning at the stake, especially in cold weather.

— John R. Agnew is a retired Fort Myers physician. He can be reached through Please write Agnew in the subject line.


Anonymous said...

You have presented very compelling arguments against capital punishment.
As it is implemented as of now, it is nothing short of torture - the most humane method in plase to date is by all means lethal injection, and yet it falls short of the mark and is not fit to deliver a quick and painless death.

The proposed method that is not yet in place and is a subject if debate, is death by asphycsia by subjecting an inmate to gases completely devoid of oxygen. If properly selected, such gases will not cause the inmate any discomfort whatsoever, yet they affect a quick and painless death in a matter of a minute, and a loss of conscience in an even shorter period of time.

I am all for this method of executing hardened criminals that cannot be rehabilitated into society

Anonymous said...

Killing anyone is wrong! It makes it even more wrong when the very laws that are suppose to protect us kill us! You and others as your pea brain need to be placed in a gas chamber!

Anonymous said...

I dont think that the death penalty is right. an eye for an eye simply cannot properly benefit society. and for someone to even suggest something as barbaric as gassing another to death is DISGUSTING. inhumane is not correct terminolgy as far as i am concerned - how can we call it 'inhumane' to electrecute or use lethal injection to kill someone? it is very typical of 'humans' to assume that they are the greater beings. we are nothing special, and never will be. humans cannot and should not call themselves merciful or anything pleasant. we are scum.
why cant the subjects in question simply die in jail? die an imprisoned man? yes, he deserves to die but NOT in the cold blood that many people seem to believe they have a right to do. only blood-thirsty and lazy people who do not yet know what to do with the criminals will actually support these methods of 'justice'. justice my ass!

Anonymous said...

Although you deserve a congradulations for putting your opinion out there, any reader must regard what you have to say as mere heresay as you don't present any sources or provide proof of your credibility. I understand being a blog this isn't needed but i came across this doing research for a formal debate and it made me think how easily someone could try to use your opinion as a fact. I think it advisable to state that this is only a personal opinion unless you do have credibility. Also after reading your opinion a would reccommend you do some extensive research as i find the majority of your opinion to be flawed. Lethal injection, when preformed correctly is a completely painless procedure. The reason the exectution team was unable to find a usuable vein in the situation you mentioned was most likely due to interveinious drug use during the inmates lifetime. Ohio and Washington recently implemented a more humane lethal injection equipt with a back up plan to inject hydromorphone into the muscle when a useable vein is not available. you seem to have a very strong opinion that could be quite useful to some, if only you do your research. good luck buddy

Anonymous said...

Killing is wrong - so therefore get your behind into the gas chamber. Well said knobhead.
The problem with keeping scum alive is the money it takes in their upkeep, certain parties believe this scum has rights so they get TV, food and luxuries deprived from the departed. So to please all parties, send them to some hell hole jail in Indonesia where if they don't die they will get various deseases and hopefully rot away.

Anonymous said...

much as it is inhumane to say, i the guys do deserve it sometimes though they should find a way of just delivering pain with no death(this would then be torture).
but then what would be the justified, humane method of executing killers, rapists and the others-minus suicide bombers??

Anonymous said...

i strongly beleive that the lethal injection is justice the people that are put forward for this punishment truley deserve it. i live in the uk where our justive system is a joke were murder means 20 years and crack on with your life as yourself if anyone in your family was mudered etc.. what would you want the punishment to be

Anonymous said...

There are too many inconsistencies in the law system for capital punishment to be without fault. If peoples lives are at hand the law system needs to be absolutely full-proof – and it’s not. yes, some people might deserve to die a horrible death...but not all of them commit such horrible crime. i don't necessarily agree/disagree with the lethal injection or the death penalty...i just believe that the law system is can be pretty crap. :)

Anonymous said...

People that dont think you should feel pain during an execution are stupid. During the brazen bull, hanging, flawing, dismantling, and all the cruel ways of punishment made people stay under control! Look at the world today 1-20,000 chance of you yourself being murderd, they kill 10 people and get a little poison in their body and thats it. 1 for 10 while the 10 could be raped and this makes me so mad that even with the death of 10 humans they still can get away with life, or they have a mental disability "so its ok". bull crap!!

Anonymous said...

I am not necessarily against the carrying out of executions, but there is something about the current trend that I find disturbing. Lethal injection, the gas chamber, and other attempts at "humane" execution all seek to distance the act of killing someone from the person actually making the decision. It seeks to present a faceless, almost fascist (forgive the buzzword) facade which is omnipotent, omniscient, and against which the accused is powerless. It ensures, in other words, that there is no accountability; there is no one down the line who will step forward and say, "Yes, I am the one responsible for this prisoner's death." Instead, the prisoner is smothered, almost consumed from existence. Swept under the carpet, in essence. And it bothers me that a person's life can be weighed, measured, then cast aside like that, regardless of their actions.

What's even more worrying, in my opinion, is the notion that medical science is being employed in order to take people's lives against their will. While I've nothing against voluntary euthanasia, using science and medicine to execute people smacks of a fundamental perversion of the Hippocratic Oath and the notion that tools of healing have been twisted for more sinister purposes. Because no man, least of all a government, should have the power let alone the right to step beyond the boundaries of medical ethics.