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U.S. Executions by Lethal Injection May Not Be Humane

Study found prisoners may not have gotten enough anesthesia in some cases

THURSDAY, April 14, 2005 (HealthDay News) -- Prisoner executions by lethal injection in the United States may not be painless or humane, and may not even meet veterinary standards for putting down animals.

So claims a research letter in this week's issue of The Lancet.

The authors concluded that prisoners executed by lethal injection may have experienced awareness and unnecessary suffering as they died because they weren't properly sedated. Anesthesia during lethal injection is essential to minimize the prisoner's suffering.

Lethal injection involves sequential administration of sodium thiopental for anesthesia, pancuronium bromide to induce paralysis, and then potassium chloride to stop the heart and cause death. If anesthesia wasn't used, the condemned prisoner would suffocate and experience excruciating pain without being able to move.

Researchers at the University of Miami Miller School of Medicine analyzed execution protocol information from Texas and Virginia, which account for about 45 percent of executions in the United States. They found that executioners had no training in anesthesia; the drugs were administered remotely with no monitoring of the anesthesia; and there was no data collection, no documentation of anesthesia, and no post-procedure peer review.

The authors also analyzed toxicology reports from 49 prisoners executed in Arizona, Georgia, North Carolina and South Carolina. In 43 of the 49 cases, the authors found blood concentrations of the anesthetic sodium thiopental were lower than that required for surgery. In 21 cases, the concentrations were low enough to be consistent with awareness on the part of the prisoner during execution.

"Our data suggest that anesthesia methods in lethal injection in the U.S. are flawed. Failures in protocol design, implementation, monitoring and review might have led to unnecessary suffering of at least some of those executed," lead researcher Leonidas Koniaris said in a prepared statement. His team believes current death row practices might not even meet standard veterinary guidelines for putting down animals.

"Because participation of doctors in protocol design or execution is ethically prohibited, adequate anesthesia cannot be certain. Therefore to prevent unnecessary cruelty and suffering, cessation and public review of lethal injection is warranted," Koniaris said.

More information

The Death Penalty Informaton Center has more on the various methods of prisoner execution in the United States.

SOURCE: The Lancet, news release, April 14, 2005
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