America’s complicated execution methods bespeak a bad conscience

by Emrys Westacott

Last month the world witnessed a morally repulsive Imagesspectacle in Arkansas. The state sought to execute eight men over eleven days, and succeeded in executing four of them, including two within an hour of each other. The reason for the rush to complete the executions before the end of April was that the state's supply of a certain drug used in the process was about to pass its "best used by" date, and the authorities were concerned on two counts: that they wouldn't be able to acquire further supplies; and that once the stocks they had were past their expiration date, there might be legal grounds either for stopping the executions or for suing the state should the executions not proceed smoothly.

Arkansas' preferred method of execution is lethal injection. In the recent cases this involved administering three drugs in succession:

  1. Midazolam: a sedative that is supposed to render the condemned person unconscious
  2. Pancuromium bromide, which paralyses them
  3. Potassium chloride, which stops the heart

The use of midazolam is controversial. It is a benzodiazepine, a similar sort of drug to valium. Unlike the barbiturates that are usually used as anesthetics in surgery, it is not guaranteed to render a person completely unconscious. It is therefore possible that the subsequent injections could cause severe pain, and this sometimes appears to have happened. In 2014, the execution in Oklahoma of Clayton Lockett by lethal injection took 43 minutes; the condemned man writhed and groaned on the gurney, went into convulsions and eventually died of a heart attack. In Ohio that same year, Denis McGuire appeared to be suffering several minutes into the procedure. In Arkansas last month, witnesses reported that Kenneth Williams, the last of the four to be executed, groaned and suffered convulsions.

People often ask why these problems arise given that we routinely anaesthetize patients for surgery and euthanize animals painlessly. The main reason is that the companies that manufacture drugs like sodium thiopental, pentobarbital or propofol, which are commonly used for such purposes, will not provide these drugs to anyone who might use them for the purpose of capital punishment. Some of this reluctance might stem from the moral values of the main shareholders; but to a large extent it is dictated by legal and commercial considerations. The drugs in question are largely manufactured in Europe, and EU regulations prohibit the export of drugs that might be used in executions. Rather than risk having sales to the US banned, companies choose not to supply the drugs to prisons.

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