Oh, the humanity – or lack thereof

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In the United States, long gone are the days of burning and beheading as forms of capital punishment. Lethal injection has become the preferred method, accounting for 98.9 percent of all executions in the U.S. between 2001 and 2005. It has been touted a humane, practical and painless form of execution, allowing the convicted offender to gently drift into unconsciousness and then death. The truth is far less inspiring.

Lethal injection actually involves three separate substances. The condemned is first given a dose of sodium thiopental, an anesthetic that induces unconsciousness. This is followed by pancuronium or tubocurarine, resulting in paralysis. Finally, potassium chloride causes a cardiac arrest that results in death.

It appears that this process is not yet perfected. A 2005 study by the University of Miami brought forth some alarming results. Autopsies revealed that the amount of anesthetic used in 43 out of the 49 cases studied were lower than what is required for surgery. In 21 cases, the dosage was low enough for the person to be aware of what was going on. This means that in an unknown number of cases, the condemned may be conscious during an excruciatingly painful death by suffocation that can last up to 45 minutes.

Since doctors vow in the Hippocratic oath to not harm their patients, they are unable to assist in executions; thus, they are being performed by inadequately trained prison workers. In the case of Joseph Clark in Ohio, it took a total 52 minutes and 19 punctures to establish an IV line. Other potential hindrances to a dignified death include errors in mixing the drugs, blood flow being restricted due to excessively tight restraints, chemicals being injected into the tissue instead of the veins and the drugs being administered in the wrong order.

In fact, animals are receiving better care in their last moments. Veterinarians have a more refined and successful process involving a single injection. Some states prohibit pancuronium bromide from being used to euthanize cats and dogs, but use it to execute their prisoners.

Looking at the potential downsides to lethal injection, perhaps it is understandable that Ronnie Lee Gardner elected to die by firing squad.