Executions mustn't be painless for society
By James Alan Fox
Monday,  June 19, 2006

 There's a small ray of hope for death row dwellers.

The U.S. Supreme Court has held that a condemned Florida man should be permitted to argue before a federal judge that lethal injection is not quite painless after all and, therefore, violates the prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment.

In a unanimous decision announced last Monday, the high court ruled not on whether capital punishment is just or even on whether death by lethal injection is unconstitutional, but very narrowly on the appropriate process for challenging whether this method of execution is as humane as it is purported to be.

Lethal injections have a relatively short history. Developed because of concern for the apparent barbarism of older methods like the electric chair, over 850 executions by lethal injection have been performed in the United States since 1982.

The death recipe involves three ingredients, given in sequence. First, sodium pentothal is administered to anesthetize the prisoner. Then pancuronium bromide is injected to paralyze muscles. Finally, potassium chloride is added to stop the heart, causing death in seconds.

For years, critics have alleged that the condemned, despite the appearance of tranquility, may actually feel excruciating pain, particularly if the anesthesia is inadequate. Yet because of complete paralysis, he is unable to show it.

The argument was given support by a study, published last year in a British medical journal, that examined toxicology reports on 49 U.S. prisoners executed. In 43 instances, the dose of painkiller was less than would have been prescribed for surgery; in 21 cases the level of anesthesia was so low the prisoner would have likely been relatively alert throughout the ordeal.

Critics also note episodes of botched executions performed by non-medical technicians. Last month, for example, it required 40 minutes for Ohio officials to execute a man when the drugs backed up in his veins, causing his arm to swell. At one point, he shouted, "This isn't working."

Several years ago, I witnessed an execution by lethal injection. I journeyed to Missouri (appropriately nicknamed the "show me" state) to observe the death penalty ritual for 40-year-old Richard Zeitvogel, a good-for-nothing career criminal who had murdered two cell mates.

The process was carefully orchestrated; after all, Missouri had had lots of experience in doing the deadly deed. At the stroke of midnight, the curtains over the viewing window were opened, as if it were the start of a theatrical performance, revealing the condemned man on a gurney.

Zeitvogel said nothing and just stared at the ceiling. Whether it was the sedative he had taken to polish off his last meal or his own disregard for life, the prisoner seemed the calmest person in or around the execution chamber. Moments later, the sequence of drugs was introduced by the hidden executioner; Zeitvogel closed his eyes and expired without any sign of struggle.

I was deeply disturbed by the process, even though or maybe because the "operation," as it was called, went off without a hitch. I was not bothered so much by having watched a man being killed, but by the fact that it was much too easy.

Frankly, I would prefer an execution method that is messy and excruciatingly painful. I'm not a sadist and I do not wish for the condemned to suffer gratuitously; but I want the rest of us to be uncomfortable. I want the executioner, the warden, the guards, the witnesses and all those who only hear about the execution to agonize over it. Only then do we fully confront the inhumanity of capital punishment.

James Alan Fox is the Lipman Family Professor of Criminal Justice at Northeastern University. Talk back at j.fox@neu.edu.