The Grim History Of The Modern Death Penalty

Richard Dieter, the executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center, offers a primer on the history of capital punishment.

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The three-drug protocol used in the execution of Clayton Lockett this week was first developed in Oklahoma in 1977. The first use of lethal injection in an execution took place five years later in Texas. For more on how lethal injection came to be the standard method of execution in the U.S. we turn to Richard Dieter. He's executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center. Welcome to the studio.

RICHARD DIETER: Thank you.

CORNISH: Take us back to 1977. Who was researching the use of drugs for execution and why?

DIETER: Well, it might go back even further to the 1880s in New York where a commission studied some alternatives to hanging and came up with the idea of lethal injection. They ultimately rejected that and chose instead a new technology, the electric chair. And so there's been a progression over the years mostly with advances in technology.

And Oklahoma was looking for something. The death penalty had been stopped for ten years. They knew it would be controversial to bring it back and wanted to have something that was more modern, something that was more technologically advanced. And so they got advice from the State Medical Examiner, Dr. Jay Chapman and he described what would happen in an operating room for patients needing surgery. There would be a series of drugs. And of course, in sufficient dosage, those drugs could cause death. And that's what Oklahoma adopted.

CORNISH: And so as you've talked about, states have been using hanging, the electric chair, even the gas chamber. Why did lethal injection come to dominate across death penalty states?

DIETER: Well, there were problems with those older methods. There certainly were problems with the electric chair. Repeated electrocutions had to be done, fire, smoke, blood. I think the other motivation though was, if the death penalty was going to continue, it had to be more palatable. You know, the prospect of putting someone to sleep, punishing them with death but not in a torturous or painful way, that was a way of making it easier for the public to continue embracing executions.

CORNISH: Now with this increased criticism of the procedure, of people paying more attention to what they're calling botched executions, you know, is this method of the death penalty essentially being discredited in the way that the past methods were?

DIETER: Yes, although it seems like it should work. It seems that you would put the inmate to sleep. But it's a medical procedure. And mostly it's being done, not by anesthesiologists or pharmacists at the scene or anything like that that you'd find in a hospital. It's mostly correctional officers -- you know, the warden is there saying, is it going okay? Is the person unconscious?

CORNISH: And we should mention the Medical Association's pretty much ban their members from doing this thing. It's a violation of medical ethics.

DIETER: Right. So there's an inherent problem with lethal injection. It's an inherent problem with picking a medical model when the whole profession wants to keep some distance from it. Even the pharmaceutical companies want to keep some distance from it. So it's hard to solve that problem. It's hard to train all your prison guards to know how to insert an IV and to find the right vein and to know when unconsciousness has occurred. So not sure how this exactly gets resolved.

CORNISH: With the European Union ban on these drugs to be used for capital punishment, the U.S. has faced a drug shortage. And we've seen states using a different mix, right, for their protocol. Who or what governs kind of what states can try when it comes to lethal injection?

DIETER: Yeah, it's a good question and it's a mixed answer. States sometimes prescribe exactly the drugs that shall be used. Gradually states have gotten away from that because the field of drugs keeps changing and they don't want to have to go back to the legislature. So more and more it's up to the Department of Corrections with some guidance. You know, it shall be by lethal injection but Oklahoma can use any drug or drugs, broad categories.

Now, those can be challenged in the court but courts have been giving a lot of deference to these departments of corrections, not even requiring that all information about where the drugs come from be revealed. And as a consequence, I think with too much secrecy and lack of transparency, mistakes happen. And that's where we are with Oklahoma Tuesday night.

CORNISH: Richard Dieter. He's executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center. Thanks so much for speaking with us.

DIETER: Thank you for having me.

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