Summary: Today, one of the bloggers that I follow regularly linked to Charles Pierce’s angry opinion piece on the State Of Oklahoma’s execution of Clayton Lockett: Barbarians In Oklahoma. Because I’ve recently been under a general anaesthetic for surgery, I was curious and decided on a whim to look up the drugs used in the “lethal injection cocktail.” Shaken and upset, I hope that my interpretation of the pharmacological effects is wrong. I’m pretty sure I am not.
Excessive bail shall not be required, nor excessive fines imposed, nor cruel and unusual punishments inflicted.
— Eighth amendment to the US Constitution
- The three drugs
- Putting it all together
- Death with Dignity
- Torture is a crime
- About the 8th amendment
- For More Information
Let me state for the record that I am not an anesthesiologist or a pharmacologist. I am currently trying to vet this material with a few professionals and am already gathering feedback that leads me to believe I am not wrong. I may be. If I am wrong, I will publish a suitably public correction/retraction.
(2) The three drugs
The lethal injection package consists of three drugs given in sequence.
(a) The First Drug
The first drug is a mild hypnotic/disassociative. The subject would feel sleepy and dizzy, but it would not provide an anaesthetic effect. Hypnotics are often used in surgery because they tend to block the formation of long-term memories; subjects appear less likely to suffer PTSD symptoms as a result of surgery if their ability to remember the experience is blocked.
(b) The Second Drug
The second drug is Vecuronium Bromide – basically, Curare. Curare causes rapid and severe paralysis of muscles. The subject remains conscious and the curare does not block pain; it renders the subject unable to move, blink, speak – or breathe. Someone on curare feels as if they are being held down by impossible force, and they begin to strangle as their diaphragm muscles stop functioning.
(c) The Third Drug
The third drug is Potassium Chloride, which stops the heart.
(3) Putting it all together
Taken together, we have a cocktail that is designed for maximum cruelty – the kind of thing Joseph Mengele might come up with – a subject is paralyzed but fully conscious without anything between them and their pain; they fully experience their death by suffocation and heart attack. A friend of mine has suffered a heart attack and says it is incredibly painful; someone paralyzed by curare would still feel every bit of it, if they hadn’t suffocated to death, first.
(4) Death with Dignity
When we euthanize our animal friends, we give them a painkiller that relaxes and disassociates them, followed by a lethal dose of barbituates (typically phenobarbitol). The “death with dignity” movement for humans also favors phenobarbitol, as a chaser on top of some Zoloft washed down with a tumbler of good scotch or some other preferred alcoholic beverage. I have known three people who died of complications from various forms of cancer and all three of them departed life fairly painlessly in a cloud of morphine or synthetic morphine such as Fentanyl. We know how to make departure from life easy.
I have generally opposed capital punishment because I feel it’s inconsistent with the idea of rehabilitation; it creates a justice system that cannot decide whether it’s punishing perpetrators or protecting society. I know that some of you may disagree with me, and that’s your prerogative. I used to favor capital punishment for the reasons Hannah Arendt (whom I did not read until much later) explained in Eichmann in Jerusalem (1963) — some crimes make us want to say “we no longer wish to share a planet with you, and it is you that must leave.” It’s a powerful argument, but those words are uttered in a tone of sadness as the civilized confronts an incorrigible barbarian.
More mature societies than ours handle such people by putting them where they can do no more harm, and doing what a society should do — protect its citizens. We do not need to kill the incorrigible barbarian to protect ourselves, lest we become the incorrigible barbarians, ourselves. I am sure that many, many people reach for the words of Nietzsche at this moment:
Whoever fights monsters should see to it that in the process he does not become a monster. And if you gaze long enough into an abyss, the abyss will gaze back into you. (Beyond Good and Evil, Aphorism 146, 1886)
(5) Torture is a crime
Clayton Lockett was put to death for a horrible crime. He tortured a woman to death in a way such that she felt every bit of her death. The State of Oklahoma committed a horrible crime, as a consequence of Lockett’s crime, by torturing him to death using a chemical cocktail that was designed by an evil doctor for a specific pharmacological effect: to make sure that he felt every bit of his death.
The debate about capital punishment will continue. In the meantime, we must bring to people’s attention that the “death by lethal injection” is, in some cases, death by torture. Unavoidably, that is a crime. It’s as if some people’s mothers never told them: “two wrongs don’t make a right.”
(6) About the 8th amendment
In upholding capital punishment inflicted by a firing squad, the Court not only looked to traditional practices but examined the history of executions in the territory concerned, the military practice, and current writings on the death penalty.
“Difficulty would attend the effort to define with exactness the extent of the constitutional provision which provides that cruel and unusual punishments shall not be inflicted; but it is safe to affirm that punishments of torture [such as drawing and quartering, embowelling alive, beheading, public dissecting, and burning alive], and all others in the same line of unnecessary cruelty, are forbidden by that amendment to the Constitution.”
See their history and analysis of the constitutionality of capital punishment.
(7) For More Information
(a) About the botched Oklahoma’s execution:
- Charles Pierce’s article: Barbarians In Oklahoma, Esquire, Esquire, 30 April 2014
- “How Oklahoma’s Botched Execution Affects the Death Penalty Debate“, Andrew Cohen, The Atlantic, 30 April 2014 — “State officials used untested drugs from a secret source to end the life of Clayton Lockett, who took more than 45 minutes to die.”
- “Cruel and Unusual“, Avicenna (self-identified as a medical student), FreeThoughtBogs, 3 May 2014
(b) “On Curare“, including a doctor’s experience with the drug
(c) “Rate of false conviction of criminal defendants who are sentenced to death“, Samuel R. Grossa et al, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, in press — Summary:
The rate of erroneous conviction of innocent criminal defendants is often described as not merely unknown but unknowable. We use survival analysis to model this effect, and estimate that if all death-sentenced defendants remained under sentence of death indefinitely at least 4.1% would be exonerated. We conclude that this is a conservative estimate of the proportion of false conviction among death sentences in the United States.
(d) About Arbitrariness, from the Death Penalty Information Center. See their graphic.