Supreme Court Weighs Lethal Injection

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The debate surrounding lethal injection as a form of capital punishment intensifies as the Supreme Court weighs an appeal by Florida death-row inmate Clarence Hill. Hill, convicted for the 1982 shooting of a police officer, received a stay of execution in January. At the center of the case is medical research conducted by Dr. David Lubarsky, head of the anesthesiology department at the University of Miami, who discusses his findings.

ED GORDON, host:

From NPR News, this is NEWS AND NOTES. I'm Ed Gordon. The debate surrounding lethal injection as a form of capital punishment has intensified, as a growing number of convicts challenge the procedure in court. Some argue certain forms of execution are inhumane.

The controversy gained momentum in April, when the U.S. Supreme Court heard an appeal by death row inmate, Clarence Hill. He was convicted and sentenced to die for killing a police officer 24 years ago. Hill's attorneys asserted that the state's method of lethal injection is likely to cause pain, and would therefore violate Hill's civil rights. He was moments away from execution in January when the high court granted a stay. The justices will decide soon if the case can move forward.

At the center of Hill's challenge is medical research conducted by Dr. David Lubarsky, head of the anesthesiology department at the University of Miami. Dr. Lubarsky's study on lethal injection was published last year in a British medical journal. Here's Dr. Lubarsky, in his own words.

Dr. DAVID LUBARSKY (Head of Anesthesiology Department, University of Miami): It turns out that the process is not well described in many of the states. That is, when we filed the Freedom of Information Acts to actually get a written summary of the processes that were used, it turned out that some states didn't even have a written process and created one for us. The thing is, I'm going to tell you what sort of goes on or what some states say go on, but when you start looking into what actually happens, unfortunately, can't guarantee that this is the process that's followed.

So the patient is brought, usually, into an execution chamber. The IVs are started, and that's assuming, of course, that they can be found. Some of these convicted criminals obviously are drug abusers and don't have very good venous access. Depending on what state you're in, a sequence of drugs are administered in varying doses. They usually or almost exclusively consist of a three-drug cocktail now: thiopental, which is an ultra-short acting anesthetic - pancuronium, which is a long-acting paralytic - and potassium chloride, which is a salt that works to the electrical activity of the heart.

You know, we looked at 49 patients, and if - and this is a big if, so I always point that out - if the post-mortem levels represent the levels at death, which we believe that they do, then at least half of them had - or about half of them, rather - had levels that were consistent with being fully conscious. And certainly, the great majority had levels that were not enough to produce, say, anesthesia for a surgical operation.

Well, why the heck should we care? These are a bunch of people who've committed heinous crimes. They deserve to suffer and suffer greatly. You know, one part of me is actually quite sympathetic to that viewpoint. You know, my answer to them is that - and I think that this is really important, because this is the critical part of this whole discussion -is that we don't actually provide retribution and revenge following a crime. What we do is we provide justice, and I think that once you start to discuss that with any reasoned human being, they begin to see that it would be wrong to continue to do this in the face of the evidence that suggests that we may indeed be torturing the victims, rather than simply executing justice.

GORDON: Dr. David Lubarsky serves as professor and chairman of the department of anesthesiology at the University of Miami Medical School.

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