A string of horrifically botched executions. States turning to illegal foreign sources and unregulated pharmacies to find execution drugs. Executions accidentally carried out using the wrong drugs.
Lethal injection in the U.S. has become the very definition of “cruel and unusual.”
When lethal injection became the standard method of execution in the United States in the 1980s, it seemed states had found a simpler and less painful way to execute prisoners after years of grisly electrocutions, in which some prisoners caught fire, and gassings that sometimes led to toxic leaks. But in the decades since, lethal injection has proven to be complicated, error-prone, and torturous.
Botched executions have made headlines across the country, such as that of Clayton Lockett in Oklahoma, who gasped and struggled for 43 minutes as witnesses looked on in horror. After a doctor’s 16 failed attempts to correctly place Lockett’s IV, sending blood spurting across the room, Lockett was still moaning and trying to raise his head. State officials called off the execution in a panic, leaving Lockett to die of a heart attack. Lockett’s was just one of several horrific executions in the past several years.
Now knowing the torture a botched lethal injection can cause, drug manufacturers are no longer willing to sell states their medicines, which are intended to heal sick patients. Faced with a shortage of execution drugs, many states are turning to questionable sources or untested drug combinations—often with disastrous results.
To avoid scrutiny, several states, including North Carolina, have passed laws making the sources of their drugs secret. One such secrecy law in Oklahoma allowed a prisoner to be executed using the wrong drug. The error was discovered minutes before a second inmate was to be executed using the unapproved drug. Several states have now put executions on hold after failed attempts to find the correct drugs.
Lethal injection’s troubles are nothing new. Problems have plagued the process for years. In North Carolina, executions have been on hold since 2006 because of serious concerns about the state’s lethal injection procedures.
In the years leading up to the halt, witness reports indicate North Carolina also carried out torturous executions. In affidavits, witnesses described prisoners convulsing, struggling against their restraints, and gasping for breath for several minutes after their lethal injections. “Instead of the quiet death I expected, Willie began convulsing,” defense attorney Cynthia Adcock said after witnessing the 2001 execution of Willie Fisher. “The convulsing was so extreme that Willie’s cousin jumped up screaming.” N.C. prison officials dispute that these executions were botched, but the witness observations are remarkably similar to proven instances of torture in other states.
Lethal injection not only tortures the people strapped to the gurney, it traumatizes witnesses and prison staff, and it mires the state in an inept bureaucratic process. Time and again, state officials have proven unable to carry out lethal injection in the dignified way we expect from a government function that takes life.
In past executions, state officials have:
Ignored the law requiring a physician to oversee and participate in executions. The most recent prison physician to attend executions said that, at some executions, he was present but did not participate or monitor the person who was executed in any way. At several other executions, he said he was not even on the same floor as the execution chamber.
Lied to a federal judge about the role of physicians during executions. During a 2006 lawsuit challenging North Carolina’s lethal injection procedures as cruel and unusual, a federal judge found that there were “substantial questions as to whether North Carolina’s execution protocol creates an undue risk of excessive pain.” In response, state officials revised the execution protocol to require that a physician observe a brain wave monitor and ensure that the individual was unconscious. Two people were executed after this change. However, in those cases, the prison physician said he was not asked to read the monitor, nor was he trained to read it.
Used dangerous equipment, and lied to the manufacturer to get it. The brain wave monitor purchased in response to the 2006 lawsuit, called a bispectral index monitor, was never tested or approved by the FDA for the prison’s intended use in executions. When purchasing the monitor, the prison told the manufacturer it would be used to monitor patients recovering from surgery. When the company discovered its true use, its medical director said the monitor could not guarantee that a person was unconscious and that the company would not have sold it to the prison if it had known it was for use in executions.
Now, nearly a decade since the last execution, the situation is no better. In 2015, the N.C. legislature enacted laws making the process even less transparent and accountable to the public. Under that law, the suppliers of drugs are now kept secret, doctors are not required to oversee executions, and the execution protocol is exempt from a rulemaking process that allows for public comment and oversight. Other recent laws have removed the oversight of the governor and the Council of State, and, incredibly, ensured that medical professionals cannot be disciplined if they perform negligently or incompetently during an execution.
If North Carolina were to restart executions now, it would be left scrambling for execution drugs. The execution protocol calls for pentobarbital, the drug that manufacturers refuse to sell. The state would be forced to substitute other drug combinations, which have proven disastrous in other states, or turn to unregulated compounding pharmacies, which also have ethical concerns about providing execution drugs.
North Carolina should not be in the business of human experimentation, nor should it risk a torturous and unconstitutional execution.
- The Atlantic on the botched execution of Clayton Lockett in Oklahoma
- N.C. Administrative Law Judge’s ruling that North Carolina violated its own execution guidelines
- National lethal injection overview from the Death Penalty Information Center
- The American Medical Association’s position on lethal injection
- The American Bar Association’s position on execution transparency