Prisoner feels ‘whole body burning’ in apparently botched lethal injection using ‘DIY drugs’

January 10, 2014

The last words of a prisoner executed in Oklahoma this week suggest that the anaesthetic used may have failed to take effect – leaving him experiencing “burning” pain.

Michael Lee Wilson, who was executed on Thursday night, said “I feel my whole body burning” before he died.   His words echo those of a Harvard Professor of Anaesthesia, Dr David Waisel, who has previously warned that should the anaesthetic stage of a lethal injection fail, the prisoner would feel “the incredibly burning pain” of the drug used to stop their heart, potassium chloride.

Oklahoma continues to use a three drug execution protocol, consisting of an anaesthetic – in this case pentobarbital – a paralysing agent, pancuronium bromide, and potassium chloride.  However, as pharmaceutical companies have refused to supply pentobarbital to executioners, the state, like many others in the US, has been forced to search for alternative supplies.

Given that US executioners have no access to sources of pentobarbital approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), Oklahoma must either be using expired supplies of the drugs, or pentobarbital made by a small-scale, low-tech compounding pharmacy.  Compounding pharmacies in the US have been dogged by scandal in recent years, notably when fungal contamination of one such pharmacy’s products caused a serious outbreak of meningitis.

Warning against the use of pentobarbital in Florida in 2011, Dr Waisel warned that “If it did not work, [the prisoner] would feel the incredibly burning pain” of the lethal, heart-stopping drug, potassium chloride.

Commenting, Maya Foa, Director of the death penalty team at legal charity Reprieve said: “The disturbing echo between the prisoner’s words and those of a Harvard expert strongly suggest that this was a badly botched execution, which caused considerable suffering.  This is yet more evidence of the callous irresponsibility of US executioners, who are engaged in a desperate struggle to kill by any means.  It is shameful and unconstitutional that states such as Oklahoma are resorting to experimental, DIY drugs or expired anaesthetics, without thinking of the extreme pain they may cause.”


Notes to editors

1. For further information, please contact Donald Campbell in Reprieve’s press office: +44 (0) 7791 755 415 /

2. Mr Wilson’s comments during his execution are quoted here:

3. Dr Waisel’s comments were made in a 2011 Florida hearing, concerning death row prisoner Manuel Valle, and can be found here:

4. Further information on the outbreak of meningitis, linked to compounding pharmacies, can be found here: