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Old 20 January 2014, 06:29 AM
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E. Q. Taft E. Q. Taft is offline
 
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Default Lethal Injection: why so difficult?

Last week's prolonged execution of convicted murderer/rapist Dennis McGuire has raised questions again about the procedures used for lethal injection for executions in the United States. I don't mean to start here a debate or argument over the merits of capital punishment or even the pros and cons of the different methods used, but I have wondered just why it seems to be so difficult to come up with a drug that can cause death quickly, reliably, and painlessly. After all, we've been using lethal injection to euthanize animals for decades, and I haven't heard a lot of objections to the methods used there; given that the people who administer such injections are usually veterinarians or others who work on animal welfare, I would think there would be strong protests if the methods used caused obvious pain or suffering on the animals' part, and a great incentive to develop quicker and more painless methods.

From a bit of reading up on the subject, part of the problem seems to be that the injections are not performed or closely supervised by doctors or other trained medical personnel, since these generally have ethical reservations about participating; hence there have been cases where, for instance, the injections missed the vein (and several cases where simply locating a suitable vein took considerable time, particularly if the condemned has a history of IV drug use - in one case, over two hours), or where the dosage prescribed by law doesn't take individual variation into account.

Also, the fact that not only doctors but drug companies don't want to be associated with the procedure means that there isn't exactly any great eagerness to refine the methods or develop more effective drugs, at least on the part of the people who would have the greatest expertise in the subject.

There's serious concern on the part of some medical people, too, caused by the fact that the European Union has banned export to the US of drugs used for lethal injection - some of which have other widespread applications. This can lead to shortages of these drugs. This perhaps discourages states from using some "better" drugs in order to avoid impairing quality of medical care. (An interesting ethical trap, that....)

I also wonder if there's a disincentive to use certain drugs because they would actually give pleasure to the condemned. At least, I would think one could kill pretty reliably with a massive dose of morphine (though I may be wrong, particularly if the condemned has a past history of opiate use and has built up any tolerance, even though one would assume that a long prison stay prior to execution would attenuate this), but it would actually give the condemned a brief moment of euphoria prior to death, and this probably does not sit well with those who view retribution as part of the reason for maintaining capital punishment. (The Ohio attorney general argued that the condemned are "not entitled to a pain-free execution," and I am sure many advocates of capital punishment would agree.)

It's a grim topic, but it just doesn't seem like something that ought to be all that difficult. Perhaps it's because we're used to thinking in fictional terms about a lot of medical aspects of poisoning, "knockout" drugs, etc., and the real medical world is much more complicated. There's a reason anesthesiologists are paid a lot of money; keeping someone unconscious without killing him is not a simple thing to do. Just killing someone may be simpler, but doing so with minimal suffering appears to be a lot more complex than it seems like it ought to be.

Last edited by E. Q. Taft; 20 January 2014 at 06:43 AM. Reason: added note
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Old 20 January 2014, 06:40 AM
Ellestar Ellestar is offline
 
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I recently had the sad experience of having to put my dog down because he developed bone cancer.

When I saw the Ohio case from the OP, I asked, "Why not just use the same drugs as they used with my dog?" He went very peacefully and though the whole process devastated me, I don't doubt he had a painless death.

It turns out that the company that supplies similar drugs as those used to put down animals has refused to release them to use on humans in death penalty cases.

It feels confusing, but I'm also on the anti-death penalty side that thinks that the state should not be killing people. I do understand it, the desire to incapacitate someone fully, but I don't think our legal system is flawless, so I can't abide the death penalty as a sentence.
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Old 20 January 2014, 07:07 AM
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Yeah, a big part of the issue, from what I hear, is that too many drug companies have some sort of weird problem with the idea that they could be associated with making a drug that's used to kill people. I'm totally perplexed why they might think that way.

< /sarcasm >

I hear another big reason is that since the US imports a lot of its medical supplies from other countries that don't use execution, who are increasingly opposed to allowing the sale of drugs to the US that are going to be used for executions. Since some of these drugs have other, non-lethal uses, it's creating a shortage in the US. Which, IIRC, was what led to this incident in Ohio with using some not-approved-for-this-purpose drugs that caused a slow and apparently rather agonizing death by asphyxiation.
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Old 20 January 2014, 08:53 AM
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Quote:
Originally Posted by E. Q. Taft View Post
At least, I would think one could kill pretty reliably with a massive dose of morphine
I believe the recent Ohio execution used a derivative of morphine.

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Originally Posted by E. Q. Taft View Post
The Ohio attorney general argued that the condemned are "not entitled to a pain-free execution," and I am sure many advocates of capital punishment would agree.
I'm not an advocate of capital punishment and I don't think the law entitles the condemned to a pain-free execution either. I haven't heard of a method that guarantees no pain at all, and since the death penalty is legal that means some pain is legal too.

Last edited by lord_feldon; 20 January 2014 at 08:59 AM.
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Old 20 January 2014, 08:58 AM
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Yeah, a big part of the issue, from what I hear, is that too many drug companies have some sort of weird problem with the idea that they could be associated with making a drug that's used to kill people..
That is correct. Several drug manufacturers, particularly ones that are outside the United States are either refusing to sell certain drugs within the United States, are are refusing to sell certain drugs with the United States when they believe it will be used for this purpose.
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Old 20 January 2014, 03:08 PM
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I guess that's one of those actions that is either 'good' or 'bad' depending on whether you agree with the issue or not.. I mean if the same thing was happening but about people's rights to kill themselves while suffering from terrible pain and illness you'd see a pretty big swap in people agreeing with or decrying the action.

I actually agree with the Judge however (even though I am 100% opposed to the death penalty) that while we can try to make it as humane as possible there is nothing to suggest that criminals being executed are entitled to a 100% pain free execution, just the most humane one available (if that, depending on where you are).

I've heard stated before that there are better, cheaper and more efficient ways to kill people than injection, but that injection was most humane for the viewing people and people carrying it out (as opposed to, say, a high caliber gunshot to the back of the head).
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Old 20 January 2014, 03:28 PM
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I guess that's one of those actions that is either 'good' or 'bad' depending on whether you agree with the issue or not..
Wouldn't that be true of most moral/ethical decisions?
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Old 20 January 2014, 03:53 PM
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What Mickey Blue said. It's not a new attitude that convicted criminals do not deserve mercy or compassion. The term "draconian" goes back to an ancient lawmaker named "Draco", who was rather fond of the death penalty. He was, allegedly, asked why so many crimes deserved death, and his response was that he believed that the lesser crimes deserved death, and that he merely could not think of a more severe punishment for the more serious crimes. I guarantee that the most staunch proponents of the death penalty don't see execution as needing to be "pain-free", and would even volunteer to pull the lever or throw the switch. I imagine that their idea of "cruel and unusual" is not the same as the general population.

If performed in private, would the single gunshot to the brain stem, or even the guillotine, not be more effective and, for lack of a better word, "humane", because they are so instant? I know that some people are advocating for nitrogen asphyxiation, but it's not the kind of thing that is easily tested.

I don't like any aspect of the death penalty to begin with, and to enter into this kind of discussion (specifically, what is the best way to execute a person instantly and without undue suffering) is to give some credibility to the issue. Fixing that system would probably make it easier, in terms of the weight upon a person's conscience, to prescribe the death penalty, knowing that it was no longer gruesome and caused suffering, and I am not for that at all. The thing is that by not fixing it, more people will have to suffer, and we already know that some of them are likely to be completely innocent of the crime for which they are being executed.
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Old 20 January 2014, 04:22 PM
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I am wondering why they don't do something like a gas chamber using carbon monoxide rather than a poisonous gas. Doesn't that pretty much make people go to sleep and never wake up?
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Old 20 January 2014, 05:23 PM
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Quote:
Originally Posted by Lainie View Post
Wouldn't that be true of most moral/ethical decisions?
Yes, but sometimes I think it's worth repeating (particularly for myself) as a reminder. Particularly in this case because (in the example I used) it could be an identical action that would be seen as either good or bad.

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I am wondering why they don't do something like a gas chamber using carbon monoxide rather than a poisonous gas. Doesn't that pretty much make people go to sleep and never wake up?
I've seen a number of people with carbon monoxide poisoning who don't look particularly happy.. But it's possible with higher concentrations it may be different.
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Old 20 January 2014, 05:27 PM
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I guess I don't see the actions as identical if they're furthering two very different outcomes -- I see the actions within the context of their outcomes, if that makes sense.
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Old 21 January 2014, 01:19 AM
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As I say, I don't want to imply support for capital punishment on my part (although my opposition to it is more qualified than some). It is interesting, now that I look into it, that the problem seems to be at least as much moral/political as technical.

I will say that nitrogen asphyxiation seems like it would be one of the more "humane" alternatives. Since breathing difficulties are caused not by oxygen deprivation but by CO2 buildup, I've heard that people have passed out from this without any warning whatsoever. That may well be an oversimplification, though.

(Part of me feels we should take the absolute opposite approach: if we must have capital punishment, it should be done in public, by the most brutal method we can come up with. This not only might be a more effective deterrent - assuming capital punishment is a deterrent at all - but would also force people to confront the issue more directly, and perhaps stir more consciousness towards banning the practice.)
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Old 21 January 2014, 02:11 AM
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Originally Posted by Beachlife! View Post
I am wondering why they don't do something like a gas chamber using carbon monoxide rather than a poisonous gas. Doesn't that pretty much make people go to sleep and never wake up?
If it's done right. According to the OACU website, rats euthanized with carbon monoxide will be distressed unless the chamber fill rate is calculated correctly (10% to 30% per minute). Too much or too fast and it hurts. So there's room for error there, too.

I wonder how much is the skill level of the executioner? My dog wasn't given enough sedative when we put her to sleep (her eyes were still blinky), so the medication that stopped her heart made her cry out in what seemed like pain. It was terrible, and later I was told that the vet we used wasn't as "good" at euthanasia as other vets.

Last edited by Little Pink Pill; 21 January 2014 at 02:19 AM.
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Old 21 January 2014, 03:22 AM
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One of the things I learned at Folsom prison was that the length and width of the rope used for the hangings was carefully calculated for each execution.
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Old 21 January 2014, 03:44 AM
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Originally Posted by E. Q. Taft View Post

(Part of me feels we should take the absolute opposite approach: if we must have capital punishment, it should be done in public, by the most brutal method we can come up with. This not only might be a more effective deterrent - assuming capital punishment is a deterrent at all - but would also force people to confront the issue more directly, and perhaps stir more consciousness towards banning the practice.)
People were executed in public for centuries. In many cases, instead of it being a serious occasion, a party atmosphere prevailed instead. People brought their children, and vendors would go around selling either food or accounts of the condemned person's life. Pickpockets would turn out, as it was a good opportunity to make a profit. People would bet on how long it would take the condemned person to die. And others would pay big money to get the best spots where they could watch the executions.

Charles Dickens wrote with disgust about the behaviour of the public at executions. In the end, the behaviour of the crowds was a big reason execution were finally taken out of the public eye and behind the prison wall.
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Old 21 January 2014, 06:12 AM
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One of the things I learned at Folsom prison was that the length and width of the rope used for the hangings was carefully calculated for each execution.
"Carefully" being the all important modifier, here.

Is there evidence that it was the actual drugs used in the OP execution that were the problem, and not just a ham-handed application? As E. Q. Taft mentioned, that wouldn't be a new phenomenon, and the history of bungled executions certainly predates lethal injections.

I'd prefer Madame Guillotine to a 20 minute medical debacle, or an imported French swordsman (for a small fee).
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Old 21 January 2014, 01:51 PM
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Originally Posted by E. Q. Taft View Post
(Part of me feels we should take the absolute opposite approach: if we must have capital punishment, it should be done in public, by the most brutal method we can come up with. This not only might be a more effective deterrent - assuming capital punishment is a deterrent at all - but would also force people to confront the issue more directly, and perhaps stir more consciousness towards banning the practice.)
Hardly. Too many people would consider it great entertainment. As catty5nutz points out that was all too often the case historically.

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"Carefully" being the all important modifier, here.
Except, of course, when it wasn't and the victim dangled and slowly choked to death, or had their head ripped from their body by the force of the drop.
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Old 21 January 2014, 02:07 PM
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I think the states that carry out capital execution should have standards on how well trained the executioners are, and should not carry out the punishment unless a person with the right qualification is available.

The state is taking a person's life. It should really have very high and exact standards around who and how carries out the execution
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Old 21 January 2014, 10:32 PM
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IIRC, at least one country uses an "automated" or "remote operated" gun to deliver the single shot to the brain stem. The guillotine removed the skill element from the executioner, and with that, removed a lot of doubt. If the blade moved freely in the track, it would do its job - not merely because it is sharp, but the force with which it falls. A gun may misfire - that merely delays the execution until a new round can be chambered - but the appropriate selection of target location (being at "point blank" range for that shot to the brain stem) and bullet should virtually guarantee success.

What is the cultural objection in the west, for this method of execution? Is it because it was common in communist countries - former enemies like the former Soviet Union? Is it too personal for the executioner? (Was it not customary for the officer in charge of a firing squad to deliver a "coup-de-grace" if the volley does not kill thr prisoner?) Was it simply that firearms had issues of reliability? I fail to understand its lack of popularity....
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Old 22 January 2014, 01:16 AM
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I think it's more to do with the spilling of blood, and the obvious violence that goes with it.

The methods that caught on in the US (Electric chair, gas chamber, lethal injection, etc) tend to leave a more-or-less intact looking corpse.
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