Botched Oklahoma Execution - Prof Banzhaf Proposes a Simple Alternative // It May be Possible to Avoid Problems of Lethal Injections, He Suggests

Oklahoma's badly botched execution, in which an inmate - according to several newspaper accounts - writhed in pain from a "blown" vein line before finally dying 43 minutes later from an apparent heart attack, is only the latest in a long line of problems and failures from using lethal injection as a method of capital punishment, notes public interest law professor John Banzhaf, who suggests an alternative.

Washington, DC, May 03, 2014 --( But that doesn't mean that the will of the people, in the 32 states where the nonprofit Death Penalty Information Canter reports that capital punishment has been sanctioned, must now be thwarted, he says, since there is a simple alternative which avoids virtually all of the problems involved with injecting lethal drugs - putting the condemned on the pill.

As summarized by the same organization, many all of the problems associated with using drugs to execute convicted murderers occur because the drugs are being injected. These problems include finding a suitable vein, positioning the needle, making sure the catheter is properly located, assuring that it doesn't come out, using a syringe, problems with tubing which may crimp or clog, etc.

In reporting on the Oklahoma execution, the Washington Post noted additional problems; "In recent years, as pharmaceutical companies have halted sales of drugs used in executions, as legal challenges have mounted and medical groups have vowed to ostracize doctors who participate in sanctioned killings, states have found themselves winging it when it comes to carrying out lethal injections."

Fortunately, there appears to be a simple, easy, and inexpensive means to avoid many of these problems.

Since most of the reported concerns about using drugs for capital punishment involve problems with injecting the drug, an obvious alternative would be for states to simply use pills rather than injections to administer drugs such as barbiturates, suggests Banzhaf.

The lethal properties of barbiturates are well known and are reported on major medical websites, such as that of the National Institutes of Health.

"Providing a condemned man with barbiturate pills to cause a quick and painless death does not require any trained (much less medical) personnel, and could avoid the many medical-type problems with injections," suggests Banzhaf.

Indeed, the use of barbiturate pills to cause a painless death is so well established that it is noted on various on-line guides for physicians in states like Washington and Oregon which have "Death With Dignity" laws.

"If it's OK for the elderly seeking death with dignity, it should be good enough for condemned murderers," he argues.

If the prisoner refuses to take the pills, or only pretends to swallow them, he can hardly complain about unnecessary pain if the state thereafter has to use lethal injections, Banzhaf argues.

To paraphrase an old legal saying, he had the key to his own freedom from pain, says Banzhaf.

Since only a few grams of certain barbiturates are necessary to cause death, as noted on, the amount necessary to cause a quick and painless death might be administered in several easy-to-swallow pills.

Concerns that the convict would fill his stomach with food to slow the absorption of the ingested drug aren't valid because condemned prisoners are reportedly usually kept under constant watch at least 24 hours before the time of execution, and because any such ploy would likewise make the condemned himself responsible for any pain he might suffer if a subsequent drug-injection execution became necessary, argues Banzhaf.

Likewise, since the oral administration of drugs may take somewhat longer for the drugs to reach the system than injections, this method of capital punishment is arguably much less likely to trigger the sudden reactions lethal injections have sometimes been said to cause, says Banzhaf.

For example, the Daily Beast reported that, in an execution in Ohio, the condemned man loudly gasped for air several times during his execution and took an unexpectedly long 25 minutes to finally die. His dying utterance, "I feel my whole body burning," was widely reported, and provided more ammunition for those opposed to the death penalty.

Using well-known, more easily available pills rather than injections for executions might mute many objections that executions by drugs are not humane, avoid the major problems with lethal injections highlighted by death penalty opponents, eliminate the need for medically trained personnel (who may refuse on ethical and/or professional grounds) to participate in executions, and have many other advantages, suggests Banzhaf, who has not taken a public position on capital punishment itself.
George Washington University Law School
Public Interest Law Professor John Banzhaf
202 994-7229 // 703 527-8418