Exposing the myth of the “humane execution”

Image of a gurney

There are a great many myths surrounding the death penalty, and some of the most pervasive and powerful relate to the use of the lethal injection as a method of execution. It is regarded by many as the safest and most humane method of killing a person. It is neither safe nor humane – quite the reverse.

Even the Supreme Court of the Unites States of America has acknowledged that the potential for torture – should the first stage in the lethal injection process fail – is unacceptably high:

“It is uncontested that, failing a proper dose of sodium thiopental that would render the prisoner unconscious, there is a substantial, constitutionally unacceptable risk of suffocation from the administration of pancuronium bromide and pain from the injection of potassium chloride.”
Baze v. Rees, 553 U.S. 35, 53 (2008).

Because the drugs used in these executions were never designed to cause deadly harm and are administered in experimental dosages they are frequently botched, with examples including the disastrous executions of Brandon Rhode in Georgia, Dennis McGuire in Ohio, Clayton Lockett in Oklahoma, and Joseph Wood in Arizona.

Pharmaceutical manufacturers have always objected to the use of their medicines – which they have spent time and money developing to improve and save the lives of patients – in executions designed to end the lives of prisoners. Since 2010, over a dozen pharmaceutical manufacturers have chosen to put distribution controls in place on their medicines to prevent misuse in executions. These controls have been so effective that states are no longer able to purchase ‘traditional’ execution drugs. This has led a number to stop executing prisoners.

Other states, however, are turning to experimental new execution drug “cocktails”, which rely on medicines produced by a handful of manufacturers which do not yet restrict sales of drugs to prisons for use in executions. As the only manufacturers without distribution controls in place, these companies risk becoming US states’ “go-to” suppliers of execution drugs.

No pharmaceutical manufacturer would wish to be associated with lethal injections, particularly when the results are often so visibly barbaric. And beyond the ethical concerns associated with complicity in medical executions, there are also serious corporate commercial concerns to consider.

The US is a litigious society, and lethal injection court challenges cost pharmaceutical manufacturers a huge amount of time and money. The cost to a manufacturer’s reputation is even higher.

Reprieve works to empower the pharmaceutical industry and provide strategies that will allow medicines to be used for the purposes for which they were designed – to improve and save lives – not in order to facilitate cruel and unusual capital punishment.

Reprieve Founder Clive Stafford Smith writes in The Independent about human experimentation, the Nuremburg Code of medical ethics, and the execution of Clayton Lockett.

Reprieve’s Maya Foa writes in The Independent on the myth of the humane execution

Joseph Wood received 15 doses of untested drug cocktail during Arizona execution

Gizmodo: How Oklahoma botched an execution with untested drugs

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