Reprieve calls on medical professional to help debunk the myth of ‘humane’ executions by lethal injection

September 1, 2011

On World Day Against the Death Penalty, legal action charity Reprieve is highlighting the suffering of prisoners killed by lethal injection in the USA and calling on healthcare workers to take a stand against it. Mistakenly believed to be a ‘humane’ method of execution, lethal injection has in fact led to several badly botched executions in US states in the last year alone. At least five prisoners showed signs that they were not properly anaesthetised during the three-drug process, leaving them in agonising pain as the final heart-stopping chemical was administered. Disturbingly, the second step – a paralysing drug – had rendered them frozen and unable to communicate their suffering. Medical professionals have a vital part to play in exposing the truth about the ‘quasi-medical’ lethal injection procedure; many have already petitioned against firms supplying requisite drugs, pursued legal action and acted as expert witnesses. As US states search for new sources of injection drugs, Reprieve is asking healthcare workers to email to find out how they can help stop the use of the procedure altogether. Five botched executions by lethal injection in the last year:

    Brandon Rhode (27/09/2010)’s eyes remained wide open during the process. This is a rare phenomenon and a key indicator that the anaesthetic, in this case sodium thiopental, has failed. Dr Mark Heath declared in an affidavit: “If the thiopental was inadequately effective Mr. Rhode’s death would certainly have been agonizing”. 
    Jeffrey Landrigan (10/10/2010)’s eyes remained open; further doubts expressed over the efficacy of the anaesthesia. 
    Emanuel Hammond (27/01/2011) closed his eyes, and then opened them again. Three witnesses to the execution raise the alarm.
    Eddie Duval Powell (15/06/2011) closed his eyes, then re-opened them; he seemed “confused and startled, jerking his head and breathing heavily”.
    Roy Blankenship (23/06/2011) died with his eyes open; in a sworn affidavit, Dr David Waisel, an Associate Professor of Anaesthesia at Harvard Medical School, states:  “…I can say with certainty that Mr. [Roy] Blankenship was inadequately anesthetized and was conscious for approximately the first three minutes of the execution and that he suffered greatly.” 

Dr David Nicholl, a British neurologist who has taken legal action against the use of the sedative pentobarbital, said: “The medical profession has already been quite explicit that  pentobarbital has no role in executions. The use of this drug – which should only be used in an intensive care-type setting with full anaesthetic support – is nothing short of barbaric, and has resulted in botched executions. ”Tineke Harris, Legal Director at Reprieve, said: “The idea that there is somehow a ‘humane’ way of executing people is one of the most dangerous myths surrounding the death penalty. Despite its quasi-medical appearance, the lethal injection procedure used in the US carries a high risk of causing serious pain and suffering to the prisoner. If the anaesthetic fails – as seems to happen far too often – the person being executed will remain conscious, but paralysed, as the final, excruciatingly painful injection is administered. Doctors, nurses and all other healthcare professionals must take a stand against the sham medical procedure that is lethal injection. We have seen before how much weight their words and action can carry – with their help, we can put a stop to it.”   ENDS Notes to editors 1. For further information, please contact Donald Campbell or Katherine O’Shea at Reprieve’s press office: +44 (0) 207 427 1082 2. World Day Against the Death Penalty 2011 is focused on execution as cruel and unusual punishment.3.  Recently, over 90 doctors from the US, Canada, Europe and India successfully petitioned pharmaceutical firm Lundbeck to take action to stop its drugs being used in lethal injections. However, more work needs to be done to ensure other companies follow Lundbeck’s ethical example. 4. The full text of Dr Nicholl’s petition on pentobarbital can be found on Reprieve’s website. Pentobarbital was not designed for use in surgical anaesthesia, and both medical experts and the manufacturer agree that use in executions could cause agonising pain and suffering. Executions using pentobarbital have failed properly to anaesthetize prisoners, leading to severe and prolonged agony. An eyewitness from the Associated Press has described the “thrashing, jerking death of Roy Willard Blankenship” during which “his eyes never closed”. The full text of Dr David Waisel’s affidavit on Roy Blankenship’s inadequate anaesthesia can be found on Reprieve’s website. 5. Reprieve, a legal action charity, uses the law to enforce the human rights of prisoners, from death row to Guantánamo Bay. Reprieve investigates, litigates and educates, working on the frontline, to provide legal support to prisoners unable to pay for it themselves. Reprieve promotes the rule of law around the world, securing each person’s right to a fair trial and saving lives.  Clive Stafford Smith is the founder of Reprieve and has spent 25 years working on behalf of people facing the death penalty in the USA.  Reprieve’s current casework involves representing 15 prisoners in the US prison at Guantánamo Bay, assisting over 70 prisoners facing the death penalty around the world, and conducting ongoing investigations into the rendition and the secret detention of ‘ghost prisoners’ in the so-called ‘war on terror.’ 6. Reprieve’s Stop Lethal Injection Project investigates the use of lethal injection in the USA.