The botched execution of an Oklahoma inmate by lethal injection this week typifies the ongoing challenges pro-death penalty states face in finding a “technological magic bullet” to put inmates to death, experts say.
“Each development or application of a new technology for execution has come with the same promise, and that is, that this method will be efficient, it will be reliable, it’ll be painless, it’ll be humane,” said professor Austin Sarat, associate dean of the faculty of Law, Jurisprudence and Social Thought at Amherst College in Massachusetts.
“That was said about electrocution, it was said about lethal gas, it was said about lethal injection. What we’re learning is there is no technological magic bullet.”
On Tuesday, Oklahoma inmate Clayton Lockett was declared unconscious 10 minutes after the first of three drugs in the state's new lethal injection combination was administered in his execution. Three minutes later, Lockett, who was convicted of shooting a woman and watching as two accomplices buried her alive, began breathing heavily, clenching his teeth and straining to lift his head.
Lockett died of a heart attack shortly thereafter, the Department of Corrections said. Officials later blamed a ruptured vein for the problems with the execution.
The execution mishap came months after Ohio inmate Dennis McGuire took 26 minutes to die after being injected with lethal drugs. He reportedly gasped repeatedly as he lay on a gurney with his mouth opening and closing.
“Why are there botched executions? Because technology fails," Sarat said. "Why are there automobile accidents, why do airplanes disappear from the sky, why does surgery go bad? Because there is no foolproof technology."
The U.S. has used five methods of execution in its history: firing squad, gas chamber, hanging, electric chair and lethal injection, which is now the predominant method employed.
While there are more efficient ways to execute people, those methods must conform with the U.S. constitution's eighth amendment that bars the government from inflicting "cruel and unusual punishment."
However, Sarat said the U.S. is also committed to punishing in a way that is compatible with the standards and decency of a humane society. Using a method like the guillotine, or firing a bullet in the back of one's head may be considered more efficient, but it's also considered indecent.
"Every other method of execution deforms the body," said Michael Radelet, a professor of sociology at the University of Colorado at Boulder, who is also an expert in the death penalty. "In the electric chair ... the bodies look horrible after they're executed; with lethal injection, you can't even tell."
"Lethal injection disguises the fact that we're killing somebody. It just looks like he's going to sleep."
Sarat examined every U.S. execution from 1890 to 2010 and determined that in three per cent of all the cases, the execution was botched, meaning those administering it didn’t follow protocol or standard operating procedure.
Lethal injection highest botch rate
So a botched execution would be defined as a prisoner being strangled during a hanging, or an electrocution in which the prisoner died by flames and not electricity because the electric chair caught fire.
However, the technique that had the highest botch rate was lethal injection, at around seven per cent.
And this rate has the potential to go up, as many European drugmakers, opposed to capital punishment, are refusing to sell their drugs to U.S. prisons and corrections departments. This is forcing states to find new sources of execution drugs, many that have been untested for the death penalty.
“States like Oklahoma are engaged in a kind of experimentation on humans, trying to find a drug or drug cocktail that will work without knowing that they will work,” Sarat said.
“Now what you’re going to do is try an entirely different recipe and you really haven’t had any experience with it. Well what do you expect, you expect there’s going to be some serious problems in getting it right.”
Although improper dosages and adverse reactions to drugs continue to be issues in executions, there are other challenges as well.
“The difficulty is in the technique. So there’s a mismatch between expertise and patient need," said Jonathan Groner, a pediatric surgeon in Columbus, Ohio who has studied lethal injections.
IV insertion by the inexperienced
Groner said just the insertion of the IV into the prisoner, when not done by professionals, can lead to problems.
"In the prison it might be [emergency medical technicians] who have some experience but they don’t do it every day," he said. "So you take someone who is not very experienced and you match them up with someone who is pretty anxious and dehydrated. It's a recipe for disaster.”
Medical training is also important in knowing how hard to push the syringe to administer the drugs, Groner said. If pushed too hard, the vein in the prisoner's arm can explode.
"Someone who’s never done it before and might be nervous about doing it, probably [will] push it as hard as they can. There’s probably a lack of training in how to give a drug IV push."