Editorial: Lethal injection is cruel and unusual

On January 30, the U.S. State of Ohio postponed all the seven executions scheduled for 2015 to procure a different anaesthetic drug and develop a new protocol to execute death row convicts using lethal injection. The announcement came three weeks after the State decided not to use a controversial anaesthetic, Midazolam, and two days after the U.S. Supreme Court stayed the execution of three Oklahoma death row convicts using the same drug. Midazolam is used to put a convict to sleep before other drugs are injected to stop the heart. Though the intent behind using the anaesthetic is to reduce pain when another injected drug causes death, the outcome has been nothing but disastrous. Last year, the unproven anaesthetic failed to completely sedate prisoners, resulting in a few prolonged and possibly excruciatingly painful executions in Ohio and Arizona. For instance, in January last year, it took 26 long minutes of “choking, gasping and writhing” before a convict in Ohio died in a bungled execution. That the experimental anaesthetic drug was chosen not on the basis of scientific merit but information available on an unreliable Internet website, reveals the downright callousness involved and the mindless pursuit of executions. In 2011, when European countries banned the export of sodium thiopental and other anaesthetic drugs used in executions and a sole American manufacturer halted sodium thiopental production, many States turned to compounding pharmacies, which are beyond the purview of the Food and Drug Administration, for the supply of untested and unreliable drugs.

There is no scientific basis to support the effectiveness of lethal injections using different drugs with randomly chosen dosages and questionable quality and administered using varied protocols: Ohio has a two-drug protocol while Oklahoma has a three-drug regimen. Another vital issue that makes the method highly repugnant is the failure to administer the drugs into a vein. Such a fiasco in April 2014 led to a convict in Oklahoma remaining alive for 43 minutes, often “writhing in pain” and “breathing heavily” before dying of a heart attack. The botched executions clearly demonstrate that the punishment very often ends up being disproportionate to the crime, thus violating the Eighth Amendment ban on cruel and unusual punishment. If capital punishment by itself is abhorrent and has no place in a modern society, executing prisoners using lethal injections is outright barbaric. The U.S. has the dubious distinction of being a country with one of the largest number of executions in the world. Ironically, 13 States account for almost all the executions; 18 States and the District of Columbia have repealed it.

Published in The Hindu on February 5, 2015