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Badly Botched Oklahoma Execution Suggests Simple Alternative // Put Them on the Pill
Oklahoma’s badly botched execution is only the latest in a long line of problems from using lethal injection as a method of capital punishment, but there appears to be a simple and inexpensive solution
But that doesn’t mean that the will of the people in the large number of states where capital punishment has been approved must be thwarted, he says, since there is a simple alternative which avoids virtually all of the problems involved with injecting lethal drugs - putting the condemned on the pill.
Virtually all of the problems associated with using drugs to execute convicted murderers occur because the drugs are being injected. These many problems include finding a suitable vein, positioning the needle, making sure the catheter is properly located, being sure it doesn't come out, using a syringe, problems with tubing which may crimp or clog, etc.
Problems also include finding people competent to start and maintain intravenous lines who are not prohibited from participating in executions by ethical and professional guidelines, locating sufficient quantities of injectable drugs now that many drug companies are trying to prevent them from being used in executions, and a federal judge who has barred the importation of most of those drugs because the FDA has not found them to be both safe and effective to kill people - an obvious contradiction for drugs used in executions, says Banzhaf.
Fortunately, there appears to be a simple, easy, and inexpensive means to avoid many of these problems, including drug company restrictions on the sale of injectable drugs, expiration dates on injectable drugs now facing several states, and the so-called "botched executions" involving injecting lethal drugs cited by death penalty opponents – putting the condemned on the pill.
Since most of the concerns of using drugs for capital punishment involve problems with injecting the drug, an obvious alternative for possibly meeting constitutional muster would be for states to simply use pills rather than injections to administer drugs such as barbiturates whose lethal properties are well known and very clearly established.
"Providing a condemned man with barbiturate pills to cause a quick and painless death does not require any trained (much less medical) personnel, and could avoid the many medical problems with injections as well as restrictions and expiration dates on injectable drugs," suggests Banzhaf.
"If it's OK for the elderly seeking death with dignity, it should be good enough for condemned murderers," he argues.
If the prisoner refuses to take the pills, or only pretends to swallow them, he can hardly complain about unconstitutional "cruel and unusual punishment" if the state thereafter has to use lethal injections.
To paraphrase an old legal saying, he had the key to his own freedom from pain, says Banzhaf.
Since only a few grams of certain barbiturates are necessary to cause death, and pills may be much harder for drug companies to restrict than liquid injectable drugs, the amount necessary to cause a quick and painless death might be administered in several easy-to-swallow pills
Concerns that the convict would fill his stomach with food to slow the absorption of the ingested drug aren’t valid because condemned prisoners are usually kept under constant watch at least 24 hours before the time of execution, and because any such ploy would likewise make the condemned himself responsible for any pain he might suffer if a subsequent drug-injection execution became necessary.
Likewise, since oral administration takes somewhat longer for the drugs to reach the system than injections, this method of capital punishment is much less likely to trigger the sudden reactions lethal injections have sometimes been said to cause.
For example, in a recent execution in Arizona, a 63-year-old convicted killer reportedly shook for several seconds upon receiving a lethal injection of pentobarbital.
In another execution in Ohio, the condemned man loudly gasped for air several times during his execution and took an unexpectedly long 25 minutes to finally die. His dying utterance, “I feel my whole body burning,” was widely reported, and provided more ammunition for those opposed to the death penalty.
Using well-known, more easily available pills rather than injections for executions might mute many constitutional objections, avoid the major problems with lethal injections highlighted by death penalty opponents, eliminate the need for medically trained personnel (who often refuse on ethical and/or professional grounds) to participate in executions, and have many other advantages, suggests Banzhaf, who has not taken a public position on capital punishment itself.
JOHN F. BANZHAF III, B.S.E.E., J.D., Sc.D.
Professor of Public Interest Law
George Washington University Law School,
FAMRI Dr. William Cahan Distinguished Professor,
Fellow, World Technology Network,
Founder, Action on Smoking and Health (ASH)
2000 H Street, NW
Washington, DC 20052, USA
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GWU Law School
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