MOTHER JONES: “New Lethal Injections Could Cause Extreme Pain, Make Deaths ‘Drag On’ for Hours”
by Save Robert Henry
Over the past several years, international drugmakers and the European Union have banned the sale of drugs for use in executions. This has made the components of the Supreme Court-approvedthree-drug cocktail that states traditionally used to kill inmates—composed of a sedative that left the inmate unable to feel pain, a second drug that works as a paralytic agent, and a third drug that stops his heart—progressively harder to obtain. To overcome this hurdle, Ohio will try to kill an inmate with a never-before-used combinations of drugs, and Missouri will become the third state to execute an inmate using drugs from an unregulated pharmacy. But as Missouri and Ohio’s unprecedented executions approach, medical and legal experts say that they are hard put to predict how much pain these new drug protocols will inflict on death row inmates, or how long convicts may linger before the drugs finally kill them.
“We don’t know how these drugs are going to react because they’ve never been used to kill someone,” says Deborah Denno, a Fordham University law professor and an expert on lethal injections. “It’s like when you wonder what you’re going to be eating tonight and you go home and root through your refrigerator to see what’s there. That’s what these departments of corrections are doing with these drugs.”
In Ohio, where new rules call for executioners to kill inmates with an overdose of the painkiller hydromorphone, experts worry that some of hydromorphone’s excruciating side effects may kick in before Phillips dies. Jonathan Groner, a professor of clinical surgery at the Ohio State University College of Medicine who has written extensively on the death penalty, says effects of a hydromorphone overdose include an extreme burning sensation, seizures, hallucination, panic attacks, vomiting, and muscle pain or spasms. Waisel, who has testified extensively on capital-punishment methods, adds that a hydromorphone overdose could result in soft tissue collapse—the same phenomenon that causes sleep apnea patients to jerk awake—that an inmate who had been paralyzed would be unable to clear by jerking or coughing. Instead, he could feel as though he were choking to death.
Because hydromorphone is not designed to kill a person, Groner says, there are no clinical guidelines for how to give a lethal overdose. “You’re basically relying on the toxic side effects to kill people while guessing at what levels that occurs,” he explains.
Many death row inmates are morbidly obese—they leave their cells only one hour a day—or are former drug abusers whose veins have collapsed or are riven with scar tissue. Both factors make setting an IV line extremely difficult, especially when the person doing so is a prison staffer with limited medical training. (Phillips, the Ohio prisoner, testified that during an October checkup, doctors had a hard time locating his veins.) An improperly administered sedative could cause an inmate to remain awake throughout his execution. Denno notes that in 2006, a California judge ruled that there was enough evidence to conclude that 6 of 11 inmates executed since 1978 did not receive enough sedative and died painful deaths. If the hydromorphone IV is set poorly, says Groner, “it would be absorbed under the skin, subcutaneously, very slowly, and that death could be extremely prolonged…It may be painful, and it may take forever.”
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