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Wednesday, February 22, 2006

There's No Easy Way to Kill

Lethal injection constitutes cruel and unusual punishment. Putting aside the fact that the death penalty always violates the 8th amendment, the method of killing itself can violate the US Constitution or the California Constitution.

Lethal injection was introduced as a "more humane" way to execute prisoners. To those watching the execution, it certainly looks more humane than when someone catches on fire during an electrocution. It certainly seems less cruel than gassing a man and watching him choke to death while spitting blood. But is it really?

California has postponed the execution of convicted killer Michael Morales due to a federal District Court judge's order that trained medical professionals must conduct the execution. The conflict here is that the AMA and every other medical association is 100% opposed to the participation of trained medical professionals in executions. Monitoring Morales' execution would require the professionals to be prepared to administer more drugs if the killing did not go as planned. This would require doctors to take affirmative steps to kill, a clear violation of the hippocratic oath.

Further, Judge Fogel wanted the state to only use sodium pentothal to execute Morales. Currently, the state puts the prisoner to sleep with sodium pentothal, then a second drug stops the prisoner's muscle movement so that the viewers can have a clean show, and a third drug stops the prisoner's heart and delivers the killing blow. The judge's rationale is that the second and third drugs are cruel and unneccessary considering that sodium pentothal will get the job done.

Judge Fogel's view regarding the lethal injection process is shared by some unlikely suspects. Last month, the U.S. Supreme Court halted an execution based upon the same premise that was supported by Dr. David A. Lubarsky's research. Dr. Lubarsky is a conservative Republican. Nonetheless, he is also the head of the University of Miami medical school's anesthesiology department. His research revealed some startling information:

Lubarsky and three colleagues, Koniaris, Teresa A. Zimmers and Jonathan P. Sheldon, obtained postmortem toxicology reports on 49 executed inmates and measured the level of a particular anesthetic, thiopental, in the inmates' bloodstream.

According to the lethal injection protocol in use in most states, the anesthetic is used to render the inmate unconscious before a second drug paralyzes him. A third drug, potassium chloride, induces a heart attack.

But Lubarsky's research suggested that perhaps 43 of the 49 inmates did not have enough thiopental in their bloodstream to ensure unconsciousness.

''Methods of lethal injection anesthesia are flawed, and some inmates might experience awareness and suffering during execution,'' the article concluded. ``Without anesthesia, the condemned person would experience asphyxiation, a severe burning sensation, massive muscle cramping and, finally, cardiac arrest.''

Wow. 87.7% of the murdered prisoners could have felt severe pain during their lethal injections. Although there is some contrary research, the fact remains that the scientific community cannot guarantee that lethal injections are not a horrific, painful procedure that ruthlessly tortures convicts at the end of their lives. Some conservatives not only don't care about this fact, but they seem to want it to be true: "I am not too worried about his feelings after the lethal injection, as he had absolutely no feelings for the 17-year-old girl he killed." But this entire process has only dragged out the victims suffering by promising some sort of salvation at the end of the killing rainbow. Expecting a man's death to make your life whole again is pure nonsense, but that's exactly the message we send to victims by instituting the death penalty. The mother of the woman that Morales killed had this to say: "We feel devastated and angry...We waited 25 years with expectancy, and now this?'" 25 years with expectancy. An expectation that one day, justice would prevail and the world would somehow be right again. But of course that isn't so. Killing Morales with premediation and deliberation isn't going to bring back the life of the woman he killed. The state's promise that it will do so has unreasonably dragged out the suffering of this poor woman. It's time to stop killing prisoners and promising victims that these deaths will help them in some macabre way.

Dr. Lubarsky has come to the belief that the death penalty is wrong: "Should we be lowering ourselves to the level of the people we are seeking to execute?...That's what separates us from them: We don't torture people on purpose.'' Dr. Corey Weinstein, a consultant to California Prison Focus, points out the irreconcilable problem with the death penalty: "Maybe it is because there is not a way to be humane and do this act."

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