Thursday, April 21, 2005

Last week we blogged about a new study that has just been published in The Lancet, Great Britain's leading medical journal. Studying the post-mortem toxicology reports of 49 executed people in the states of Arizona, Georgia, North Carolina and South Carolina, researchers were able to determine that the blood level concentration of sodium thiopental -- the drug that is supposed to render you unconscious while the other, poisonous drugs are administered -- were too low.

In other words: There is the distinct possibility that in some cases, people being executed may be awake and conscious while a paralyzing agent is administered. This would leave them unable to cry out or react in any way when the third drug is given -- a drug that would cause an agonizing burning sensation.

Supporters of the death penalty might say, "So what? After what they did, what's a little suffering?"

But in what amounts to a journalistic breakthrough, the Houston Chronicle today explained the "so what" in an editorial. Here is an excerpt:

Not surprisingly, death penalty supporters were unimpressed with the findings. Andy Kahan, the crime victims advocate under Mayor Bill White and the two previous Houston mayors, asserted that, "Lethal injection represents the most humane possible means of punishing a brutal, heinous murderer."

But, as the study's authors pointed out, there is too little data to conclude that the procedure is painless. The Texas Department of Criminal Justice told the researchers they don't have autopsy or toxicology reports for executed inmates or information about how it created the protocol it uses for injections. They said medical technicians who administered the drugs in their sample population had no training in anesthesia, and no post-execution reviews were conducted.

It's one thing to believe that lethal injection is painless, but it's quite another to accept a degree of pain, a sentiment Kahan made clear in his next breath: "Whether or not it is painful, one thing is for sure, it is certainly less painful than the excruciating and horrific death that the victim suffered at the hand of the defendant."

Kahan's defense of the state on grounds that it acts less viciously than the murderer should not keep Texans from ensuring a humane procedure. Texas executions are supposed to be about justice and deterrence, not revenge. Also, in order to keep to the lawful side of the U.S. Constitution, executions may not violate the Eighth Amendment's prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment.

To read the entire editorial, go here.

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