Commentary & Opinion
12:48 pm
Thu May 8, 2014

Sean Philpott: The Ethics Of A Botched Execution

Clayton Lockett died last week, but few will mourn his death. A four-time convicted felon, Mr. Lockett was executed by the State of Oklahoma for shooting and then burying alive a 19-year-old girl. Following his death, Oklahoma Governor Mary Fallin proudly stated that, "justice was served".

Justice indeed was served, at least if you believe in the Biblical principle of an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth, for Mr. Lockett suffered greatly during the 43 minutes it took him to die by lethal injection.

Twenty minutes into the execution -- during which Clayton moaned, writhed and gritted his teeth -- correction officials discovered that the vein used to deliver a lethal cocktail of drugs had collapsed. Instead of entering his bloodstream, drugs that were meant to render Mr. Lockett unconscious, paralyze him, and stop his heart leaked into the surrounding tissue. He was partially awake and in considerable pain.

State officials called off the execution, but it was too late. Forty-three minutes after the execution began, Mr. Lockett suffered a heart attack and died.

Although a majority of Americans support the death penalty, capital punishment  remains a controversial topic. Should our system of justice be based on rehabilitation or retribution? Can a society condemn the wanton taking of life by individuals like Clayton Lockett and yet sanction the same act by government officials? Is this penalty fairly applied to all of those accused of capital crimes or do racial and ethnic minorities bear a disproportionate burden of punishment?

No matter where you fall in this debate, the horrific manner in which Mr. Lockett died should raise serious concerns about our current method of execution by lethal injection.

Execution by lethal injection was first proposed in the 19th century. It came into widespread use in the 20th century, initially as a cost-effective means of involuntary euthanasia under the Action T4 program in Nazi Germany.

It wasn't until the latter part of the 20th century that lethal injection became a common method of execution in the United States. Oklahoma was the first state to legalize the use of lethal injection, and other states quickly followed suit. It is the preferred method of execution in the 32 states that allow the death penalty.

Until recently, the approach used in the United States has remained largely unchanged from the lethal injection protocol first proposed by Oklahoma's state medical examiner, Jay Chapman. Known as the Chapman protocol, it involves the use of three drugs: a barbiturate like sodium thiopental to render condemned prisoners unconscious and insensate, pancuronium bromide to cause paralysis and suppress respiration, and potassium chloride to trigger cardiac arrest.

But despite claims that this approach is more humane and less painful than other execution methods, this has never been demonstrated. Chapman himself did no research in designing the lethal injection protocol that bears his name. Similarly, no one has ever collected data that shows that lethal injection prevents the "unnecessary and wanton infliction of pain" required by the Eighth Amendment to the US Constitution.

Worse yet, states that allow execution by lethal injection are now forced to deviate from the Chapman protocol due to drug shortages. Several of the drugs used to execute condemned prisoners are in short supply, largely because imports from manufacturers in Europe have stopped.

The European Union limits the manufacture and export of drugs that can be used for capital punishment under its existing Torture Regulation. Many European drug companies no longer produce and sell these compounds. Of those companies in Europe and the US that do still manufacture these drugs, most are reluctant to sell them to state Departments of Corrections.

In states like Texas and Ohio -- where lethal injection is the only execution method allowed by law -- this shortage has left corrections officials scrambling to find alternative sources of these drugs or to devise alternative means to carry out state-sanctioned executions. Rather than use sodium thiopental, for example, some states have started using varying doses of a different drug -- sodium phenobarbitol -- alone or in combination with pancuronium bromide and potassium chloride as their lethal injection cocktail.

States are also calling upon small companies known as compounding pharmacies to provide the drugs required, as Oklahoma did for Clayton Lockett's execution. But compounding pharmacies are not FDA-regulated. Sometimes, they are even not licensed or qualified to mix these particular drug combinations. States are thus using drugs of unknown quality and potency as part of the lethal injection protocol.

Our increasingly random approach to executing prisoners via lethal injection, using drugs obtained from poorly regulated sources, raises any number of questions about the constitutionality of this method of capital punishment. Regardless of what you might think about men like Clayton Lockett, they too have certain inalienable rights. One of these is the right to be free of "cruel and unusual punishments," which includes guaranteeing that state-sanctioned executions are free of unnecessary and wanton pain.

There should be immediate moratorium on the use of the death penalty until we can prove that our current methods of lethal injection are indeed humane and pain free. Otherwise we are condemning thousands of death row inmates to a fate worse than death.

A public health researcher and ethicist by training, Dr. Sean Philpott is Director of Research Ethics for the Bioethics program at Union Graduate College-Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai in Schenectady, New York.  He is also Acting Director of Union Graduate College's Center for Bioethics and Clinical Leadership, and Project Director of its Advanced Certificate Program for Research Ethics in Central and Eastern Europe.

The views expressed by commentators are solely those of the authors. They do not necessarily reflect the views of this station or its management.

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