Court to Answer Questions on Lethal Injection

Many critics of execution by lethal injection charge that it is inhumane because it is often administered improperly. In California, executions by lethal injection have been put on hold until a federal court can examine the practice and report its findings. Judy Campbell of member station KQED reports.

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A report out this week from Human Rights Watch calls the lethal injection methods used for executions in 36 states "negligent."

Here in California, questions about lethal injection have already led to a hold on executions pending a federal court hearing.

From member station KQED, Judy Campbell reports.

Ms. JUDY CAMPBELL (reporter, KQED) reporting:

In February, a federal judge halted the execution of convicted murderer Michael Morales until he could ensure the process didn't cause excessive pain. That decision reverberated across the country.

Jamie Fellner is director of the U.S. program of Human Rights Watch.

Ms. JAMIE FELLNER (director, United States Human Rights Watch program): It has pulled the cover off of what has really been a very secret process in the United States; the process by how we kill people.

Ms. CAMPBELL: Over the years, states have tried different ways of executing inmates. Each evolution in the method has been an attempt to eliminate something gruesome about it. Think back to hangings and bodies twitching at the end of a rope.

After that, UC Berkeley law professor Franklin Zimring says, states tried to find more scientific methods: electrocution, gas, and then, lethal injection.

Professor FRANK ZIMRING (law, University of California, Berkeley): It really was a Ronald Reagan idea. You go back and you find, in 1973, Reagan saying, gee, it's no big deal when the vet comes out to put down a horse or a family pet. Why couldn't we have something like that?

Ms. CAMPBELL: The lethal injection procedure uses a massive dose of barbiturate to knock the inmate out. A second drug paralyzes all movements. The third stops his heart. Is it painless? Well, say a chief of anesthesiology were about to be executed.

Dr. RONALD MILLER (anesthesiology, University of California, San Francisco): I would want, in concept, this approach being used.

Ms. CAMPBELL: Ronald Miller heads anesthesiology at UC San Francisco. He says the amount of barbiturate used should put the prisoner far beyond any pain or discomfort.

Dr. MILLER: The dose of thiopental that they use should be more than adequate.

Ms. CAMPBELL: In fact, no one disputes that, given correctly, the three-drug cocktail should be a painless death. But the Human Rights Watch report suggests that some inmates may not have been fully anesthetized when the painful heart-stopping drug was administered. And in some California executions, witnesses reported seeing chest movements long after breathing should have stopped.

But it's hard for anyone to know exactly what happened, because there's no doctor administering the drugs or monitoring the patients. That's different from putting a pet to sleep, the so-called humane procedure that lethal injection is based on.

Michael Payne(ph) is a veterinary pharmacologist at UC Davis.

Dr. MICHAEL PAYNE (veterinary pharmacologist, University of California, Davis): A veterinarian would typically monitor their vital signs, reflexes, heart rate, and respiration, to ensure that the animal was unconscious.

Ms. CAMPBELL: In California, the people performing the execution are in another room, behind one-way glass. The drugs are administered through long IV tubes that wind from behind the wall into the inmate's arm.

Death penalty proponents say concerns about pain are idle speculation, not borne out by science. But at least one death penalty supporter is concerned about the procedure: the man who invented it.

Dr. A.J. Chapman developed the original lethal injection protocol in the '70s. He says if eyewitness reports about problems are correct, it's probably because someone is doing something wrong.

Dr. A.J. CHAPMAN (creator of the lethal injection protocol): Well it sounds like the people that have been doing it, from the technical problems that I'm aware of, either haven't, they haven't been trained properly or they're not the people who should be doing it.

Ms. CAMPBELL: Human Rights Watch wants a scientific review of lethal injection nationwide. California will scrutinize its own lethal injection method next week, with evidentiary hearings in the case of Michael Morales.

For NPR News, I'm Judy Campbell in San Francisco.

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