Monday, November 16, 2009

Ohio takes chance on lethal injection

The Los Angeles Times reported that Ohio has become the first state in the nation to adopt a single-injection method for executing condemned inmates, a process that state officials believe will avoid violating the constitutional ban on cruel and unusual punishment.

The single large dose of anesthetic is similar to the method used by veterinarians to euthanize pets and livestock. Other states with capital punishment now use a three-drug formula that has been reviewed and approved by the U.S. Supreme Court.

The accepted three drug cocktail involves the following procedure, after the anesthetic is administered, pancuronium bromide and potassium chloride are introduced into the body. The second drug paralyses the inmate the final drug stops the heart. According to the Wall Street Journal, administering the second drug is for the sole purpose of avoiding unpleasantness for those observing the execution. Representatives of the victim’s family, the media and law enforcement are invited to witness all executions. Without the paralyzing agent the witnesses would be exposed to the uncomfortable sight of the inmate’s body spasms and muscle contractions as he drifted into cardiac arrest.

Clarence Hill, a convicted murderer from Florida sought to challenge lethal injection as a violation of the Eighth Amendment ban against cruel and unusual punishment. Hill argued to the U.S. Supreme Court that the three chemicals used in lethal injection can cause “a foreseeable risk of . . . gratuitous and unnecessary pain.” The drugs are a combination of chemicals that relieve pain, paralyze and induce a fatal heart attack. A unanimous court ruled that inmates could make last minute challenges to lethal injection. The court did not decide whether lethal injection was cruel and unusual punishment. That decision would be left to the state, Hill V. McDonough, 547 U.S. 573 (2006). Ironically, the state of Florida found Hill’s argument to be untimely and executed him last September.

If the use of a lethal dose of anesthetic would provide a more humane death slumber, why not abandon the three-drug cocktail and adopt death by lethal anesthetic? Hill's attorney counted that the length of time to carry out the execution would lengthen the process from a few minutes-to as long as half an hour. Justice John Paul Stevens interjected, “I’m terribly troubled by the fact that the second drug is what seems to cause all the risk of excruciating pain and seems to be almost totally unnecessary.”

On April 16, 2008 the U.S. Supreme Court, in the case of Baze v. Rees, 533 U.S. ___ (2008), rejected a challenge to Kentucky's method of lethal injection. The court held that lethal injection did not violate the Eighth Amendment.

In the wake of a botched execution in September, Ohio appears to be following the reasoning of Justice Stevens by eliminating all but the drug that induces death during executions. Ohio's bold action will surely make it's way back to the high court.

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