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Note: Italics indicate countries where capital punishment has not been used in the last ten years or that have a moratorium in effect.
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Lethal injection is the practice of injecting a person with a fatal dose of drugs (typically a barbiturate, paralytic, and potassium solution) for the express purpose of causing immediate death. The main application for this procedure is capital punishment, but the term may also be applied in a broad sense to euthanasia and suicide. It kills the person by first putting the person to sleep, and then stopping the breathing and heart, in that order.
Lethal injection gained popularity in the late twentieth century as a form of execution intended to supplant other methods, notably electrocution, hanging, firing squad, gas chamber, and beheading, that were considered to be more painful. It is now the most common form of execution in the United States of America.
Lethal Injection, known as putting someone to death, was first proposed on January 17, 1888, by Julius Mount Bleyer, a New York doctor who praised it as being cheaper than hanging. Bleyer's idea, however, was never used. Half a century later, Nazi Germany developed the Action T4 euthanasia programme as one of its methods of disposing Lebensunwertes Leben ("life unworthy of life"). The British Royal Commission on Capital Punishment (1949–53) also considered lethal injection, but eventually ruled it out after pressure from the British Medical Association (BMA).
On May 11, 1977, Oklahoma's state medical examiner, Jay Chapman, proposed a new, less painful method of execution, known as Chapman's Protocol: "An intravenous saline drip shall be started in the prisoner's arm, into which shall be introduced a lethal injection consisting of an ultra-short-acting barbiturate in combination with a chemical paralytic." After the procedure was approved by anesthesiologist Stanley Deutsch, formerly Head of the Department of Anaesthesiology of the Oklahoma University Medical School, the Reverend Bill Wiseman introduced the method into the Oklahoma legislature, where it passed and was quickly adopted (Title 22, Section 1014(A)). Since then, until 2004, thirty-seven of the thirty-eight states using capital punishment introduced lethal injection statutes. On August 29, 1977, Texas adopted the new method of execution, switching to lethal injection from electrocution. On December 7, 1982, Texas became the first state to use lethal injection to carry out capital punishment, for the execution of Charles Brooks, Jr.
The People's Republic of China began using this method in 1997, Guatemala in 1998, the Philippines in 1999, Thailand in 2003, and the Republic of China (Taiwan) in 2005. Vietnam reportedly now uses this method. The Philippines has since abolished the death penalty.
The export of drugs to be used for lethal injection was banned by the European Union (EU) in 2011, together with other items under the EU Torture Regulation.
By early 2014 a number of botched executions involving lethal injection, and a rising shortage of suitable drugs, had some U.S. states reconsidering lethal injection as a form of execution. Tennessee, which had previously offered inmates a choice between lethal injection and the electric chair, passed a law in May 2014 which gave the state the option to use the electric chair if lethal injection drugs are either unavailable or made unconstitutional. At the same time, Wyoming and Utah were considering the use of firing squads in addition to existing execution methods.
The People's Republic of China used to execute prisoners exclusively by means of shooting, but has been changing over to lethal injection in recent years. The specific lethal injection procedures, including the drug or drugs used, are a state secret and not publicly known. In at least some cases, prisoners facing death by lethal injection have been sedated at a prison, then placed inside an execution van that is disguised to look like a regular police van.
The condemned person is strapped onto a gurney; two intravenous cannulae ("IVs") are inserted, one in each arm. Only one is necessary to carry out the execution; the other is reserved as a backup in the event the primary line fails. A line leading from the IV line in an adjacent room is attached to the prisoner's IV, and secured so the line does not snap during the injections.
The arm of the condemned person is swabbed with alcohol before the cannula is inserted. The needles and equipment used are sterilized. There have been questions about why these precautions against infection are performed despite the purpose of the injection being death. There are several explanations: cannulae are sterilized during manufacture, so using sterile ones is routine medical procedure. Secondly, there is a chance that the prisoner could receive a stay of execution after the cannulae have been inserted, as happened in the case of James Autry in October 1983 (he was eventually executed on March 14, 1984). Finally, it would be a hazard to prison personnel to use unsterilized equipment.
Following connection of the lines, saline drips are started in both arms. This, too, is standard medical procedure: it must be ascertained that the IV lines are not blocked, ensuring the chemicals have not precipitated in the IV lines and blocked the needle, preventing the drugs from reaching the subject. A heart monitor is attached so prison officials can determine when death has occurred.
In most states, the intravenous injection is a series of drugs given in a set sequence, designed to first induce unconsciousness followed by death through paralysis of respiratory muscles and/or by cardiac arrest through depolarization of cardiac muscle cells. The execution of the condemned in most states involves three separate injections (in sequential order):
The drugs are not mixed externally as that can cause them to precipitate. Also, a sequential injection is key to achieve the desired effects in the appropriate order: administration of the pentobarbital essentially renders the person unconscious; the infusion of the pancuronium bromide induces complete paralysis, including that of the lungs and diaphragm rendering the person unable to breathe. If the person being executed were not already completely unconscious, the injection of a highly concentrated solution of potassium chloride could cause severe pain at the site of the IV line as well as along the punctured vein, but it interrupts the electrical activity of the heart muscle and causes it to stop beating, bringing about the death of the person being executed.
The intravenous tubing leads to a room next to the execution chamber, usually separated from the condemned by a curtain or wall. Typically a prison employee trained in venipuncture inserts the needle, while a second prison employee orders, prepares and loads the drugs into the lethal injection syringes. Two other staff members take each of the three syringes and secure them into the IVs. After the curtain is opened to allow the witnesses to see inside the chamber, the condemned person is then permitted to make a final statement. Following this, the warden will signal that the execution may commence, and the executioner(s) (either prison staff or private citizens depending on the jurisdiction) will then manually inject the three drugs in sequence. During the execution, the condemned's cardiac rhythm is monitored. Death is pronounced after cardiac activity stops. Death usually occurs within seven minutes, although the whole procedure can take up to two hours, as was the case with the execution of Christopher Newton on May 24, 2007. According to state law, if a physician's participation in the execution is prohibited for reasons of medical ethics, then the death ruling can be made by the state Medical Examiner's Office. After confirmation that death has occurred, a coroner signs the condemned’s death certificate.
In two states (Delaware and Missouri) there is a lethal injection machine designed by Massachusetts-based Fred A. Leuchter that comprises two components: the delivery module and the control module. Two staff members each have a station in which they key the machine on and depress two stations buttons to be ready in case of mechanical failure. Each person presses one station button on the console which travels to a computer which starts all three injections electronically. The computer then deletes who actually started the syringes so that participants are not aware if their syringe contained saline or one of the drugs necessary for execution (to assuage guilt in a manner similar to the blank cartridge in execution by firing squad). The delivery module has eight syringes. The end syringes containing saline, syringes 2, 4, 6 containing the lethal drugs for the main line and syringes 1, 3, 5 containing the injections for the back-up line. The system was used in New Jersey before the abolition of the death penalty in 2007. Illinois previously used the computer, and Missouri and Delaware use the manual injection switch on the delivery panel.
Eleven states have switched, or have stated their intention to switch, to a one-drug lethal injection protocol. A one-drug method is using the single drug sodium thiopental to execute someone. The first state to switch to this method was Ohio, in December 8, 2009. In 2011, after pressure by activist organizations, the manufacturers of sodium thiopental and pentobarbital halted supply of the drugs to U.S. prisons performing lethal injections and required all resellers to do the same.
Typically, three drugs are used in lethal injection. Sodium thiopental is used to induce unconsciousness, pancuronium bromide (Pavulon) to cause muscle paralysis and respiratory arrest, and potassium chloride to stop the heart.
Sodium thiopental (US trade name: Sodium Pentothal) is an ultra-short acting barbiturate, often used for anesthesia induction and for medically induced coma. The typical anesthesia induction dose is 0.35 grams. Loss of consciousness is induced within 30–45 seconds at the typical dose, while a 5 gram dose (14 times the normal dose) is likely to induce unconsciousness in 10 seconds.
A full medical dose of Thiopental reaches the brain in about 30 seconds. This induces an unconscious state. Five to twenty minutes after injection, approximately 15% of the drug is in the brain, with the rest in other parts of the body.
The half-life of this drug is about 11.5 hours, and the concentration in the brain remains at around 5–10% of the total dose during that time. When a 'mega-dose' is administered, as in state-sanctioned lethal injection, the concentration in the brain during the tail phase of the distribution remains higher than the peak concentration found in the induction dose for anesthesia, because repeated doses — or a single very high dose as in lethal injection — accumulate in high concentrations in body fat, from which the thiopental is gradually released. This is the reason why an ultra-short acting barbiturate, such as thiopental, can be used for long-term induction of medical coma. Historically, thiopental has been one of the most commonly used and studied drugs for the induction of coma. Protocols vary for how it is given, but the typical doses are anywhere from 500 mg up to 1.5 grams. It is likely that this data was used to develop the initial protocols for state-sanctioned lethal injection, according to which one gram of thiopental was used to induce the coma. Now, most states use 5 grams to be absolutely certain the dosage is effective.
Barbiturates are the same class of drug used in medically assisted suicide. In euthanasia protocols, the typical dose of thiopental is 1.5 grams; the Dutch Euthanasia protocol indicates 1-1.5 grams or 2 grams in case of high barbiturate tolerance. The dose used for capital punishment is therefore about 3 times more than the dose used in euthanasia.
Pancuronium bromide (Trade name: Pavulon): The related drug curare, like pancuronium, is a non-depolarizing muscle relaxant (a paralytic agent) that blocks the action of acetylcholine at the motor end-plate of the neuromuscular junction. Binding of acetylcholine to receptors on the end-plate causes depolarization and contraction of the muscle fiber; non-depolarizing neuromuscular blocking agents like pancuronium stop this binding from taking place.
The typical dose for pancuronium bromide in capital punishment by lethal injection is 0.2 mg/kg and the duration of paralysis is around 4 to 8 hours. Paralysis of respiratory muscles will lead to death in a considerably shorter time.
Potassium is an electrolyte, 98% of which is intracellular. The 2% remaining outside the cell has great implications for cells that generate action potentials. Doctors prescribe potassium for patients when there is insufficient potassium, called hypokalemia, in the blood. The potassium can be given orally, which is the safest route; or it can be given intravenously, in which case there are strict rules and hospital protocols on the rate at which it is given.
The usual intravenous dose is 10–20 mEq per hour and it is given slowly since it takes time for the electrolyte to equilibrate into the cells. When used in state-sanctioned lethal injection, bolus potassium injection affects the electrical conduction of heart muscle. Elevated potassium, or hyperkalemia, causes the resting electrical potential of the heart muscle cells to be lower than normal (less negative). Without this negative resting potential, cardiac cells cannot repolarize (prepare for their next contraction).
Depolarizing the muscle cell inhibits its ability to fire by reducing the available number of sodium channels (they are placed in an inactivated state). ECG changes include faster repolarization (peaked T-waves), PR interval prolongation, widening of the QRS, and eventual sine-wave formation and asystole. Cases of patients dying from hyperkalemia (usually secondary to renal failure) are well known in the medical community, where patients have been known to die very rapidly, having previously seemed to be normal.
The Ohio protocol, developed after the incomplete execution of Romell Broom, ensures the rapid and painless onset of anesthesia by only using sodium thiopental and eliminating the use of Pavulon and potassium as the second and third drugs, respectively. It also provides for a secondary fail-safe measure using intramuscular injection of midazolam and hydromorphone in the event intravenous administration of the sodium thiopental proves problematic. The first state to switch to use Midazolam as the first drug in a new three-drug protocol was Florida on October 15, 2013. Then on November 14, 2013, Ohio made the same move.
In the brief for the U.S. courts written by accessories, the State of Ohio implies that they were unable to find any physicians willing to participate in development of protocols for executions by lethal injection, as this would be a violation of medical ethics, such as the Geneva Promise, and such physicians would be thrown out of the medical community and shunned for engaging in such deeds, even if they could not lawfully be stripped of their license.
On December 8, 2009, Kenneth Biros became the first person executed using Ohio's new single-drug execution protocol. He was pronounced dead at 11:47 a.m. EST, 10 minutes after receiving the injection. On September 10, 2010, Washington became the second state to use the single-drug Ohio protocol with the execution of Cal Coburn Brown. Currently, eight states (Arizona, Georgia, Idaho, Missouri, Ohio, South Dakota, Texas and Washington) have used the single-drug execution protocol. Five additional states (Arkansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, North Carolina and Tennessee) have announced that they are switching to a single-drug protocol but, as of April 2014, have not executed anyone since switching protocols.
After sodium thiopental began being used in executions, Hospira, the only American company that made the drug, stopped manufacturing it due to its use in executions. The subsequent nationwide shortage of sodium thiopental led states to seek for other drugs. Pentobarbital, a drug often used for animal euthanasia, was used as part of a three drug cocktail for the first time on December 16, 2010, when John David Duty was executed in Oklahoma. It was then used as the drug in a single drug execution for the first time on March 10, 2011, when Johnnie Baston was executed in Ohio.
Lethal injection has also been used in cases of euthanasia to facilitate voluntary death in patients with terminal or chronically painful conditions. Euthanasia can be accomplished either through oral, intravenous, or intramuscular administration of drugs. In individuals who are incapable of swallowing lethal doses of medication, an intravenous route is preferred. The following is a Dutch protocol for parenteral (intravenous) administration to obtain euthanasia, with the old protocol listed first and the new protocol listed second:
A euthanasia machine may allow an individual to perform the process alone.
In 2006, the Supreme Court ruled in Hill v. McDonough that death-row inmates in the United States could challenge the constitutionality of states' lethal injection procedures through a federal civil rights lawsuit. Since then, numerous death-row inmates have brought such challenges in the lower courts, claiming that lethal injection as currently practiced violates the ban on "cruel and unusual punishment" found in the Eighth Amendment to the United States Constitution. Lower courts evaluating these challenges have reached opposing conclusions. For example, courts have found that lethal injection as practiced in California, Florida, and Tennessee is unconstitutional. On the other hand, courts have found that lethal injection as practiced in Missouri, Arizona, and Oklahoma is constitutionally acceptable.
As of 2014, California has nearly 750 prisoners condemned to death by lethal injection despite the moratorium imposed when in 2006 a federal court found California's lethal injection procedures to be unconstitutional. A newer lethal injection facility has been constructed at San Quentin State Prison which cost over $800,000, but it has yet to be used because a state court found that the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation violated the California Administrative Procedure Act by attempting to prevent public oversight when new injection procedures were being created.
On September 25, 2007, the United States Supreme Court agreed to hear a lethal injection challenge arising from Kentucky, Baze v. Rees. In Baze, the Supreme Court addressed whether Kentucky's particular lethal injection procedure comports with the Eighth Amendment and will determine the proper legal standard by which lethal injection challenges in general should be judged, all in an effort to bring some uniformity to how these claims are handled by the lower courts. Although uncertainty over whether executions in the United States would be put on hold during the period in which the United States Supreme Court considers the constitutionality of lethal injection initially arose after the court agreed to hear Baze, no executions took place during the period between when the court agreed to hear the case and when its ruling was announced, with the exception of one lethal injection in Texas hours after the court made its announcement.
On April 16, 2008, the Supreme Court rejected Baze v. Rees thereby upholding Kentucky's method of lethal injection in a majority 7–2 decision. Ruth Bader Ginsburg and David Souter dissented. Several states immediately indicated plans to proceed with executions.
The American Medical Association believes that a physician's opinion on capital punishment is a personal decision. Since the AMA is founded on preserving life, they argue that a doctor "should not be a participant" in executions in any professional capacity with the exception of "certifying death, provided that the condemned has been declared dead by another person" and "relieving the acute suffering of a condemned person while awaiting execution". Amnesty International argues that the AMA's position effectively "prohibits doctors from participating in executions." The AMA, however, does not have the authority to prohibit doctors from participation in lethal injection, nor does it have the authority to revoke medical licenses, since this is the responsibility of the individual states.
Typically, most states do not require that physicians administer the drugs for lethal injection, but many states do require that physicians be present to pronounce or certify death.
Some states specifically detail that participation in a lethal injection is not to be considered practicing medicine. For example, Delaware law reads "the administration of the required lethal substance or substances required by this section shall not be construed to be the practice of medicine and any pharmacist or pharmaceutical supplier is authorized to dispense drugs to the Commissioner or the Commissioner's designee, without prescription, for carrying out the provisions of this section, notwithstanding any other provision of law" (excerpt from Title 11, Chapter 42, § 4209). State law allows for the dispense of the drugs/chemicals for lethal injection to the state's Department of Corrections (DOC) without a prescription.
Opponents of lethal injection believe that it is not actually painless as practiced in the United States. Opponents argue that the thiopental is an ultra-short acting barbiturate that may wear off (anesthesia awareness) and lead to consciousness and an uncomfortable death wherein the inmate is unable to express their discomfort because they have been rendered paralyzed by the paralytic agent.
Opponents point to the fact that sodium thiopental is typically used as an induction agent and not used in the maintenance phase of surgery because of its short acting nature. Following the administration of thiopental, pancuronium bromide is given. Opponents argue that pancuronium bromide not only dilutes the thiopental, but (since the inmate is paralyzed) also prevents the inmate from expressing pain. Additional concerns have been raised over whether inmates are administered an appropriate level of thiopental owing to the rapid redistribution of the drug out of the brain to other parts of the body.
Additionally, opponents argue that the method of administration is also flawed. They state that since the personnel administering the lethal injection lack expertise in anesthesia, the risk of failing to induce unconsciousness is greatly increased. In reference to this problem, Jay Chapman, the creator of lethal injection, said, "It never occurred to me when we set this up that we’d have complete idiots administering the drugs." Also, they argue that the dose of sodium thiopental must be customized to each individual patient, not restricted to a set protocol. Finally, the remote administration results in an increased risk that insufficient amounts of the lethal injection drugs enter the bloodstream.
In total, opponents argue that the effect of dilution or improper administration of thiopental is that the inmate dies an agonizing death through suffocation due to the paralytic effects of pancuronium bromide and the intense burning sensation caused by potassium chloride.
Opponents of lethal injection, as currently practiced, argue that the procedure employed is designed to create the appearance of serenity and a painless death, rather than actually providing it. More specifically, opponents object to the use of Pancuronium bromide, arguing that its use in lethal injection serves no useful purpose since the inmate is physically restrained. Therefore the default function of pancuronium bromide would be to suppress the autonomic nervous system, specifically to stop breathing.
In 2005, University of Miami researchers, in cooperation with an attorney representing death row inmates, published a research letter in the medical journal The Lancet. The article presented protocol information from Texas and Virginia which showed that executioners had no anesthesia training, drugs were administered remotely with no monitoring for anesthesia, data were not recorded and no peer review was done. Their analysis of toxicology reports from Arizona, Georgia, North Carolina, and South Carolina showed that post-mortem concentrations of thiopental in the blood were lower than that required for surgery in 43 of 49 executed inmates (88%); 21 (43%) inmates had concentrations consistent with awareness. This led the authors to conclude that there was a substantial probability that some of the inmates were aware and suffered extreme pain and distress during execution. The authors attributed the risk of consciousness among inmates to the lack of training and monitoring in the process, but carefully make no recommendations on how to alter the protocol or how to improve the process. Indeed, the authors conclude, "because participation of doctors in protocol design or execution is ethically prohibited, adequate anesthesia cannot be certain. Therefore, to prevent unnecessary cruelty and suffering, cessation and public review of lethal injections is warranted."
Paid expert consultants on both sides of the lethal injection debate have found opportunity to criticize the 2005 Lancet article. Subsequent to the initial publication in the Lancet, three letters to the editor and a response from the authors extended the analysis. The issue of contention is whether Thiopental, like many lipid-soluble drugs, may be redistributed from blood into tissues after death, effectively lowering thiopental concentrations over time, or whether thiopental may distribute from tissues into the blood, effectively increasing post-mortem blood concentrations over time. Given the near absence of scientific, peer-reviewed data on the topic of thiopental post-mortem pharmacokinetics, the controversy continues in the lethal injection community and in consequence, many legal challenges to lethal injection have not used the Lancet article.
In 2007, the same group that authored The Lancet study extended its study of the lethal injection process through a critical examination of the pharmacology of the barbiturate thiopental. This study – published in the online journal PloS Medicine – confirmed and extended the conclusions made in The Lancet article and goes further to disprove the assertion that the lethal injection process is painless.
To date these two studies by the University of Miami team serve as the only critical peer-reviewed examination of the pharmacology of the lethal injection process. These findings also appear true to be further supported by increased reporting of problematic lethal injections in the United States.
According to the New Lethal Injection Protocols section above, single-drug lethal injection is already in use, or intended, in eleven states.
The execution can be painlessly accomplished, without risk of consciousness, by the injection of a single large dose of a barbiturate. By this logic, the use of any other chemicals is entirely superfluous and only serves to unnecessarily increase the risk of pain during the execution. Another possibility would be the infusion of a powerful and fast-acting narcotic, such as fentanyl, which would ensure comfort while suppressing the victim's respiratory drive.
When sodium pentobarbital, a barbiturate used in animal euthanasia, is administered in an overdose, it causes rapid unconsciousness. Respiratory arrest follows next, through paralysis of the diaphragm and collapse of the lungs. The drug would then suppress cardiac activity, thus causing death.
On occasion, there have also been difficulties inserting the intravenous needles, sometimes taking over half an hour to find a suitable vein. Typically, the difficulty is found in convicts with a history of intravenous drug use. Opponents argue that the insertion of intravenous lines that take excessive amounts of time are tantamount to being cruel and unusual punishment. In addition, opponents point to instances where the intravenous line has failed, or where there have been adverse reactions to drugs, or unnecessary delays during the process of execution.
On December 13, 2006, Angel Nieves Diaz was not executed successfully in Florida using a standard lethal injection dose. Diaz was 55 years old, and had been sentenced to death for murder. Diaz did not succumb to the lethal dose even after 35 minutes, necessitating a second dose of drugs to complete the execution. At first, a prison spokesman denied Diaz had suffered pain, and claimed the second dose was needed because Diaz had some sort of liver disease. After performing an autopsy, the Medical Examiner, Dr. William Hamilton, stated that Diaz’s liver appeared normal, but that the needle had been pierced through Diaz’s vein into his flesh. The deadly chemicals had subsequently been injected into soft tissue, rather than into the vein. Two days after the execution, then-Governor Jeb Bush suspended all executions in the state and appointed a commission “to consider the humanity and constitutionality of lethal injections.” The ban was lifted by Governor Charlie Crist when he signed the death warrant for Mark Dean Schwab on July 18, 2007. On November 1, 2007, the Florida Supreme Court unanimously upheld the state's lethal injection procedures.
A study published in 2007 in the peer-reviewed journal PLoS Medicine suggested that "the conventional view of lethal injection leading to an invariably peaceful and painless death is questionable".
The execution of Romell Broom was abandoned in Ohio on September 15, 2009, after prison officials failed to find a vein after 2 hours of trying on his arms, legs, hands and ankle. This has stirred up intense debate in the United States about lethal injection.
Dennis McGuire was executed in Lucasville, Ohio on January 17, 2014. According to reporters the execution of McGuire took more than 20 minutes and McGuire was gasping for air for 10 to 13 minutes. It was the first use of a new drug combo which was introduced in Ohio after the European Union banned sodium thiopental exports. This renewed criticism on the conventional three-drug method.
Clayton Lockett died of a heart attack during a failed execution attempt on April 29, 2014 at Oklahoma State Penitentiary in McAlester, Oklahoma. Lockett was administered an untested mixture of drugs that had not previously been used for executions in the U.S., and survived for 43 minutes before being pronounced dead. Lockett convulsed and spoke during the process, and attempted to rise from the execution table 14 minutes into the procedure, despite having been declared unconscious.
Due to its use for executions in the US, the UK introduced a ban on the export of sodium thiopental in December 2010, after it was established that no European supplies to the US were being used for any other purpose. The restrictions were based on "the European Union Torture Regulation (including licensing of drugs used in execution by lethal injection)". From 21 December 2011 the European Union extended trade restrictions to prevent the export of certain medicinal products for capital punishment, stating that "The Union disapproves of capital punishment in all circumstances and works towards its universal abolition".
The combination of a barbiturate induction agent and a nondepolarizing paralytic agent is used in thousands of anesthetics every day. Supporters of the death penalty argue that unless anesthesiologists have been wrong for the last 40 years, the use of pentothal and pancuronium is safe and effective. In fact, potassium is given in heart bypass surgery to induce cardioplegia. Therefore, the combination of these three drugs is still in use today. Supporters of the death penalty speculate that the designers of the lethal injection protocols intentionally used the same drugs as used in every day surgery to avoid controversy. The only modification is that a massive coma-inducing dose of barbiturates is given. In addition, similar protocols have been used in countries that support euthanasia or physician-assisted suicide.
Thiopental is a rapid and effective drug for inducing unconsciousness, since it causes loss of consciousness upon one circulation through the brain due to its high lipophilicity. Only a few other drugs, such as methohexital, etomidate, or propofol have the capability to induce anesthesia so rapidly. (Narcotics such as Fentanyl are inadequate as induction agents for anesthesia.) Supporters argue that since the thiopental is given at a much higher dose than for medically induced coma protocols, it is effectively impossible for the condemned to wake up.
Anesthesia awareness occurs when general anesthesia is inadequately maintained, for a number of reasons. Typically, anesthesia is induced with an intravenous drug, but maintained with an inhaled anesthetic given by the anesthesiologist (note that there are several other methods of safely and effectively maintaining anesthesia). Barbiturates are used only for induction of anesthesia and these drugs rapidly and reliably induce anesthesia, but wear off quickly. A neuromuscular blocking drug may then be given to cause paralysis which facilitates intubation, although this is not always required. The anesthesiologist has the responsibility to ensure that the maintenance technique (typically inhalational) is started soon after induction to prevent the patient from waking up.
General anesthesia is not maintained with barbiturate drugs. An induction dose of thiopental wears off after a few minutes because the thiopental redistributes from the brain to the rest of the body very quickly. However, it has a long half-life, which means that it takes a long time for the drug to be eliminated from the body. If a very large initial dose is given, little or no redistribution takes place (since the body is saturated with the drug), which means that recovery of consciousness requires the drug to be eliminated from the body, which is not only slow (taking many hours or days), but unpredictable in duration, making barbiturates very unsatisfactory for maintenance of anesthesia.
Thiopental has a half-life of approximately 11.5 hours (however, the action of a single dose is terminated within a few minutes by redistribution of the drug from the brain to peripheral tissues) and the long acting barbiturate phenobarbital has a half-life of approximately 4–5 days. It contrasts towards the inhaled anesthetics have extremely short half-lives and allow the patient to wake up rapidly and predictably after surgery.
The average time to death once a lethal injection protocol has been started is about 7 – 11 minutes. Since it only takes about 30 seconds for the thiopental to induce anesthesia, 30–45 seconds for the pancuronium to cause paralysis, and about 30 seconds for the potassium to stop the heart, death can theoretically be attained in as little as 90 seconds. Given that it takes time to administer the drug, time for the line to flush itself, time for the change of the drug being administered, and time to ensure that death has occurred, the whole procedure takes about 7–11 minutes. Procedural aspects in pronouncing death also contribute to delay and, therefore, the condemned is usually pronounced dead within 10 – 20 minutes of starting the drugs. Supporters of the death penalty say that a huge dose of thiopental, which is between 14 – 20 times the anesthetic induction dose and which has the potential to induce a medical coma lasting 60 hours, could never wear off in only 10 to 20 minutes.
Death penalty supporters state that the claim that pancuronium dilutes the sodium thiopental dose is erroneous. Supporters argue that pancuronium and thiopental are commonly used together in surgery every day and if there were a dilution effect, it would be a known drug interaction.
Drug interactions are a complex topic. Some drug interactions can be simplistically classified as either synergistic or inhibitory interactions. In addition, drug interactions can occur directly at the site of action, through common pathways or indirectly through metabolism of the drug in the liver or through elimination in the kidney. Pancuronium and thiopental have different sites of action, one in the brain and one at the neuromuscular junction. Since the half-life of thiopental is 11.5 hours, the metabolism of the drugs is not an issue when dealing with the short time frame in lethal injections. The only other plausible interpretation would be a direct one, or one in which the two compounds interact with each other. Supporters of the death penalty argue that this theory does not hold true. They state that even if the 100 mg of pancuronium directly prevented 500 mg of thiopental from working, there would be sufficient thiopental to induce coma for 50 hours. In addition, if this interaction did occur, then the pancuronium would be incapable of causing paralysis.
Supporters of the death penalty state that the claim that the pancuronium prevents the thiopental from working, yet is still capable of causing paralysis, is not based on any scientific evidence and is a drug interaction that has never before been documented for any other drugs.
Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, Death Penalty Information Center, Reprieve, and other anti-death penalty groups have not proposed a lethal injection protocol which they believe is less painful. Supporters of the death penalty argue that the lack of an alternative proposed protocol is testament to the fact that the painfulness of the lethal injection protocol is not the issue. Instead supporters argue that the issue is the continued existence of the death penalty, since if the only issue was the painfulness of the procedure, then Amnesty International, HRW, or the DPIC should have already proposed a less painful method.
Regardless of an alternative protocol, some death penalty opponents have claimed that execution can be less painful by the administration of a single lethal dose of barbiturate. Supporters of the death penalty, however, state that the single drug theory is a flawed concept. Terminally ill patients in Oregon who have requested physician-assisted suicide have received lethal doses of barbiturates. The protocol has been highly effective in producing a painless death, but the time to cause death can be prolonged. Some patients have taken days to die, and a few patients have actually survived the process and have regained consciousness up to three days after taking the lethal dose. In a Californian legal proceeding addressing the issue of the lethal injection cocktail being "cruel and unusual," state authorities said that the time to death following a single injection of a barbiturate could be as much as 45 minutes.
Scientifically, this is readily explained. Barbiturate overdoses typically cause death by depression of the respiratory center, but the effect is variable. Some patients may have complete cessation of respiratory drive, whereas others may only have depression of respiratory function. In addition, cardiac activity can last for a long time after cessation of respiration. Since death is pronounced after asystole and given that the expectation is for a rapid death in lethal injection, multiple drugs are required, specifically potassium chloride to stop the heart. In fact, in the case of Clarence Ray Allen a second dose of potassium chloride was required to attain asystole. The position of most death penalty supporters is that death should be attained in a reasonable amount of time.
Supporters of the death penalty agree that the use of pancuronium bromide is not absolutely necessary in the lethal injection protocol. Some supporters believe that the drug may decrease muscular fasciculations when the potassium is given, but this has yet to be proven.
Saudi Arabia is the only country in the world where a death sentence results in beheading in a public square, and sometimes shootings as an alternative. There have been calls in the Kingdom for replacing beheadings with lethal injection because of the beliefs that they should be more humane when it comes to executions, but nothing has been changed to this day.
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