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The Problem with the Execution of Executions

Naveen Sultan about over 1 year ago

photo by Jean Henry Telcy

The Problem with the Execution of Executions

By Amy Beeman

Experts call it air hunger. That's what happened when a new lethal injection cocktail given to convicted rapist and murderer, Dennis McGuire, left him gasping, snorting and struggling for breath. One of the drugs wouldn't let his body absorb oxygen, so he wretched on the table for 10 to 26 minutes, depending on different witness accounts reported.

McGuire's slow death shed light on an issue that many of us likely were unaware of, which is that over the last few years, one-by-one, the companies that produce different drugs used for lethal injection are refusing to sell the chemicals to prisons for use in killing. They say they make the drugs for surgical procedures, to help people, not to be used to cause death. As prison stocks of these drugs dwindle and expire, states are having to find new drug combinations to carry-out death sentences.

Many are turning to drug compound pharmacies, which alter current FDA approved drugs for specialized reasons. The finished result does not currently require FDA approval, though under the recently passed Drug Quality and Security Act, compound pharmacies are encouraged to register with the FDA (they are not mandated to do so). In McGuire's case, he was the first to be injected with a new lethal mix of pharmaceutical chemicals, and some say it caused him to experience unlawful cruel and unusual punishment. His family is suing the state of Ohio on those grounds. The death penalty is still legal in 32 states and lethal injection is the most widely used method to kill prisoners on death row.

Here in Florida, where we were second in the number of death sentences carried out in 2013, at 15, (California was first with 24) lethal injection is the standard method of capital punishment, though electrocution is still an option. Inmate's choice.

Seven other states still offer electrocution. In three states, Delaware, Missouri and Wyoming, hanging is still on the table. Oklahoma and Utah have the option of firing squads, and Arizona, Missouri and Wyoming have the gas chamber. There are some stipulations for using most of those methods though, and lethal injection is overwhelmingly the way the death sentence is carried out. However, lawmakers in Missouri and Wyoming are proposing to bring back firing squads to those states too, saying that there is too much room for error by trying to experiment with lethal drug mixes, not to mention, it's a cheap way to get the job done.

It's all an ugly business. The reason lethal injection has been 'popular' is that has a cleaner, more clinical feel to it. We put a person to sleep and they never wake up. That's about the best one can hope for in death. Whether an inmate suffers while being pumped up with lethal doses of drugs isn't always obvious, as they are often given drugs to paralyze them. The whole thing begs the question, is there a good way to kill a person? If we say we are for the death penalty, then maybe we don't care if a convicted murderer suffers. But if we are uncomfortable with any of the possible methods of death, or if they make us feel like killers ourselves, then maybe it's time for a re-evaluation of our motives.

According to, a 2000 study showed that keeping an inmate on death row "costs Florida $51 million a year above what it would cost to punish all first- degree murderers with life in prison without parole. Based on the 44 executions Florida had carried out since1976 [to 2000], that amounts to a cost of $24 million for each execution."

This holds true for other states too. Studies cite the costs of pre-trial, trial, endless appeals, and the special incarceration needs for death row inmates as tallying up some pretty high tabs. So the argument that killing a convicted killer is cheaper because we don't have to pay for them the rest of their lives seems to be faulty.

Then there is the argument for ultimate justice. We want vengeance, punishment, vindication. These primal instincts we feel toward a perpetrator are probably similar to those that said perpetrator felt when they committed the crime, ironically enough. Though some may say that the victim, or victims, in a case were innocent whereas the perpetrator that we put to death was found guilty and therefore is not an innocent, so deserves to pay with his or her life.

Maybe they do. But if they deserve to die it is up to us, the citizens to make them die, and us, not being killers, have a hard time with that part. That's why lethal injection has been such a tidy way to take care of this deed. Now that drug companies want no part in their chemicals being used for killing, we have to face a messy situation, at least until we come up with the next magic potion. We are an ingenious bunch, no doubt we'll pull it off, eventually.

In the mean time, McGuire's slow, noisy death has made many of us re-examine our notions about capital punishment. Now that our go-to way to kill is no longer an easy option, we have to decide how we feel about some of the more unseemly ways to kill. Is the idea of a firing squad so far-fetched, in this country where often the news of yet another shooting is met with dull resignation? Until we come up with a solid new plan, death's like McGuire's may not be an anomaly. According to a report on, the first four states scheduled to carry out executions this year are all trying different drug cocktails, which reeks eerily of experimenting on humans. As much as we like to think ourselves civilized, many times our actions tell a different story.

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