Virginia failing to check whether prisoners are conscious during executions

April 24, 2012

Image of a lethal injection gurney

Virginia’s executioners are not even checking that prisoners are properly anaesthetised before injecting them with lethal chemicals which can cause excruciating pain, according to new documents filed by lawyers. 

The revelations are set out in a writ filed against the state’s Department of Corrections for administering anaesthesia and distributing controlled drugs “without due license or authorization.” 

The lack of checks made by prison staff in the US state means that prisoners could remain conscious during the execution process. This is carried out using a three drug ‘cocktail’, the first of which is an anaesthetic. The following two drugs paralyse the prisoner and stop the heart, respectively. The final, heart-stopping drug would cause an “incredibly burning pain” should the prisoner remain conscious, according to medical experts. In addition, lack of prescriptions or licensure to administer these drugs creates risk of unsafe usage, such as inappropriate dosage and use of recalled products.

The documents detail how, when carrying out executions, Virginia prison staff: – do not check whether or not the patient is still conscious before proceeding with the execution- wait for just 30 seconds between administering the anaesthetic and the subsequent two drugs which paralyse, suffocate and stop the heart- have increased the doses of the second and third drugs to take into account variables such as the prisoner’s weight while making no alteration in the dose of the anaesthetic- have administered recalled drugs.

The filing also describes how the execution teams “have spent significant amounts time during designated training sessions planning events such as barbeques, picnics, and the collection of money for activities, such as the creation of hats reading: ‘One Team One Mission.’

Maya Foa, an investigator for legal action charity Reprieve, said: “This is not only a shockingly casual attitude towards executions on the part of Virginia. It also means that the chance of prisoners suffering excruciating pain as they are killed is significantly increased. Virginia’s Department of Corrections is attempting to carry out the complex business of anaesthesia despite being unlicensed and unauthorised to do so. The potential outcome is horrific human suffering.”


1. For further information, please contact Donald Campbell in Reprieve’s press office: +44 (0) 207 427 1082 /

2. The full text of the writ is available on Reprieve’s website. The risks and errors on the part of the Virginia DoC are detailed at paragraph 24.

3. Harvard anaesthesiologist Dr David Waisel has described how, in the event that the anaesthetic stage of the execution process fails to work, the prisoner  “would feel the incredibly burning pain” of the lethal heart-stopping drug, potassium chloride.

4. 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 secret detention of ‘ghost prisoners’ in the so-called ‘war on terror.’

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