Botched execution in Oklahoma reveals chaotic state of death penalty

Michael Cook
4 May 2014
Reproduced with Permission

A botched execution in Oklahoma on Tuesday has revived the debate over the death penalty in the United States and raised hopes (or fears) that lethal injections have had their day. Convicted murderer Clayton Lockett thrashed on a gurney for 43 minutes before dying of a heart attack.

"We have a fundamental standard in this country that even when the death penalty is justified, it must be carried out humanely," said the White House press secretary. "And I think everyone would recognize that this case fell short of that standard." President Obama has asked his attorney-general to review how executions are carried out in the states.

The governor has postponed the next execution in Oklahoma, which was due on May 13, until a review of procedures has been completed.

The death penalty is legal in 32 states and in Federal jurisdictions; all of them use lethal injections as the preferred method of execution. However, supply of drugs for a triple cocktail, the ideal method, has gradually dried up, as manufacturers refused to supply them or have stopped production. As a result, prison authorities are experimenting with different drugs. "We have a dozen methods of lethal injection out there now," said Deborah W. Denno, a death penalty expert at Fordham Law School. "[States] are not prepared to do this; they're not knowledgeable to do this, and they don't want to fess up to all the problems that are associated with something like this."

(One of the drugs is pentobarbital, an anaesthetic recommended by assisted suicide activists.)

Another difficulty is that anaesthetists who participate in the death penalty by lethal injection risk losing their certification. Anaesthetists "should use their clinical skills and judgment for promoting an individual's health and welfare," says the American Board of Anaesthesiology . "To do otherwise would undermine a basic ethical foundation of medicine which is - first do no harm."