When condemned prisoners are executed in the States today, death is often a matter of ill-educated guesswork. Dennis McGuire was on the wrong end of that miscalculation yesterday as the State of Ohio 'experimented' with untested drugs to take his life. It resulted in what some witnesses described as death by torture.
David Nicholl of the University of Birmingham has chronicled America's bungled efforts at supposedly killing prisoners humanely.
In 1977, anaesthetist Stanley Deutsch proposed the so-called triple cocktail for lethal injection, consisting of a fast-acting anaesthetic (sodium thiopental), a muscle-paralysing agent (pancuronium) and a cardiotoxin (potassium chloride) to stop the heart for an execution in Oklahoma. There was a perception that this might be somehow more humane, despite reports of botched executions – deaths that took longer than they should, signs of skin burns and convulsions – and more than 1100 prisoners have been executed in this way.
But pressure by drug manufacturers and European export controls mean the supply of these drugs (and subsequent substitutions such as pentobarbital, a barbituate used for severe forms of epilepsy) is now limited, leading to executing states using different concoctions and combinations. The reported last words of Michael Lee Wilson in Oklahoma earlier this month, that he felt his “whole body burning” around 20 seconds into his execution, prompted some to suggest this may have played a part.
Much has been made about untested drugs ...used in Ohio’s execution of Dennis McGuire, because the state opted to use a sedative called midazolam and a painkiller, hydromorphone, due to a shortage of pentobarbital.
In one sense being untested is true of all drugs used in executions, as no pharmaceutical company has ever developed a drug to be used to kill someone – this would be in complete breach of medical ethics. As a consequence, the executioners had to make a guess (and not necessarily an educated one) about what the lethal toxic dose is of the drug concerned.
The biggest change to how lethal injections are used came in 2011, when the European Union (which is fundamentally opposed to the death penalty) introduced export controls to prevent drugs being used for executions. The ban on exports of sodium thiopental for executions led the US to switch to pentobarbital. Then following pressure from the medical profession and others, Lundbeck, the Danish manufacturer of pentobarbital (sold as Nembutal), introduced a controlled distribution mechanism to tighten up its supply chain, preventing use by US prisons.
Despite attempts at stockpiling by executioners, the shelf life of their pentobarbital was limited to 2013. The next switch was (to a very limited degree) propofol, the world’s most widely used anaesthetic and the drug infamously involved in the botched (and fatal) treatment of Michael Jackson.
All these drugs are important for use in critical care units or operating theatres in hospitals. They weren’t developed to be used in an execution chamber with poorly trained non-medical staff. The pressure from manufacturers and countries that don’t want their drugs involved in executions has had a massive impact. The numbers of executions in the US last year fell to the lowest level since 1994 with 39 prisoners executed in 2013 in the US.
Nicholls goes on to note that with Europe cutting off the supply of drugs for lethal injections, some U.S. executioners have fallen back on controversial "compounding pharmacies" to source chemicals.
Perhaps the horribly botched "death by torture" of killer Dennis McGuire compounded by the barbaric claim of the prosecutor that "You're not entitled to a pain-free execution" will re-energize the abolition movement in the United States. And to think there are plenty of Conservatives in Canada that would be delighted to see the death penalty reinstated.