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Through a Glass Darkly

The Politics of Lethal Injection

by JOE DeRAYMOND

The Supreme Court has decided to rule on the humanity of using lethal injection in executions, in Baze v Rees, a Kentucky case in which two inmates scheduled to be killed by the State have questioned the method of their punishment. Death penalty opponents have seized on this ruling as a portal to abolition of the death penalty, as was suggested by Marleen Martin in these pages in January, in her article, "The Needle and the Damage Done". Death penalty supporters hope for clarity from the Court on a proper procedure to be used to kill, as with Michael Rushford of the Criminal Justice Legal Foundation, who supports capital punishment and described lethal injection in a 2006 NPR interview as "essentially euthanasia".

Here in Pennsylvania, the District Attorneys have created a death row of 226, but only three have been executed in the last 30 years. These three voluntarily ended their appeals, and thereby committed judicial suicide. The 226 remaining live in very tough conditions, lockdown 23 hours a day, solitary, a living death awaiting death.

As we anticipate a surge in executions, let us envision what will happen on a regular basis under current law. Here is the execution statute of Pennsylvania:

61 Pennsylvania Statutes § 3004. Method of execution

(a) – The death penalty shall be inflicted by injecting the convict with a continuous intravenous administration of a lethal quantity of an ultrashort-acting barbituate in combination with chemical paralytic agents approved by the department until death is pronounced by the coroner. The coroner shall issue the death certificate. The execution shall be supervised by the superintendent or his designee of the correctional institution designated by the department for the execution.

This is the same method approved in 37 of the 38 States that maintain the death penalty. Nebraska still mandates the electric chair. The actual mechanics and staffing of the execution are hidden in the murk of bureaucracy. The press office of the Department of Corrections stated recently that "Pennsylvania has a confidential lethal injection team, and uses people in the medical profession, like a nurse, RN, or paramedic."

I can picture the scene, as guards strap down the "convict’ onto the crucifix table, access a vein, and begin what is, finally, a medical procedure, a "euthanasia" that will first sedate, then paralyze, and finally stop the heart of a human being.

The current Supreme Court case will focus on the use of the paralytic agent, which renders the executee unable to register discomfort, or even undergo normal death throes in an unconscious state. Certainly, the lower Courts that have registered their discomfort with this procedure and have noted the difference with animal euthanasia, and, perhaps, have been embarassed by the cruelty of our human executions when compared to animal euthanasia.

Here is the statute addressing the destruction of an animal in Pennsylvania:

3 Pennsylvania Statutes § 328.2 Methods of destruction of animals

(a) Required method.–The required method of destruction shall be by the administration of an overdose of a barbiturate, barbiturate combinations, drug or drug combinations approved for this purpose by the Federal Drug Administration and in accordance with guidelines established by the Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture.

(b) Authorized method.–Nothing in this act shall prevent a person or humane society organization from destroying a pet animal by means of firearm.

328.3. Administration of drugs

The barbiturates, barbiturate combinations or other Federal Drug Administration approved drugs or drug combinations shall be administered by intravenous, intraperitoneal or intracardiac injections or orally by a licensed veterinarian or as set forth in section 6.

The FDA approved drugs, with their chemical constituents, for destruction of an animal are as follows: Beuthanasia-D Special, pentobarbital sodium and phenytoin sodium; Repose Euthanasia Solution, secobarbital and dibucaine; Tributame™ Euthanasia Solution, embutramide, chloroquine phosphate, lidocaine; Euthasol, pentobarbital sodium and phenytoin sodium; Euthanasia-III Solution, pentobarbital sodium and phenytoin sodium. There is not a paralytic among them. Nor is a paralytic mentioned in the American Veterinary Medicine Association (AVMA) Guidelines on Euthanasia. The 2007 version of these guidelines contains a highlighted note, in red, on its title page:

Caution: The AVMA Guidelines on Euthanasia (formerly the 2000 Report of the AVMA Panel on Euthanasia) have been widely misinterpreted. Please note the following:

-The guidelines are in no way intended to be used for human lethal injection.

-The application of a barbiturate, paralyzing agent, and potassium chloride delivered in separate syringes or stages (the common method used for human lethal injection) is not cited in this report.

-The report never mentions pancuronium bromide or Pavulon, the paralyzing agent used in human lethal injection.

The authors of this caution fail to mention that the Guidelines do contain the following pertinent note in the appendix:

Neuromuscular blocking agents (nicotine, magnesium sulfate, potassium chloride, all curariform agents) – When used alone, these drugs all cause respiratory distress before loss of consciousness, so the animal may perceive pain and distress after it is immobilized.

Lethal injection may be cruel to the person being killed, but its beauty for proponents of capital punishment is its appearance. Since the dying human cannot move, he/she cannot cry out, moan, twitch, or otherwise present anything but stillness to the practitioners of State murder, or to the witnesses. Just as the United States citizenry enjoys a mass media that carefully sanitizes the brutality of its government, so it appreciates the aesthetic of a death without death throes, conducted with the soothing appearance of an anesthetist delivering a painkiller. The reality of the suffocating patient, struggling to scream, can be ignored if the screams cannot be voiced.

I have spoken with my local State Representative, Bob Freeman, and my State Senator, Lisa Boscola, about the cruelty and lack of reason involved in the death penalty, and they remain resolute in supporting it, for the victims they say, to protect society. When I suggested to another Pennsylvania State Representative, Douglas Reichley, that lethal injection may be cruel and unusual, he simply suggested that we could return to the firing squad. The local District Attorneys, John Morganelli of Northampton County, and James Martin of Lehigh County, are staunch supporters of the death penalty, and seek it whenever they can stretch to "qualify" a defendant. Each is willing to accept the very real possibility of an innocent undergoing death, in order to maintain the visage of the all-powerful State administering a final justice.

These legislators are unmoved by the fact that more people have been exonerated from Pennsylvania’s death row–six – than have been executed in the last 30 years. It is a political no-brainer here in Pennsylvania – to seek death is to gain votes.

Savage images rise to the surface, as we contemplate how far we have fallen, how depraved we have become in this rush to obtain an artificial sense of justice. Support and tolerance for capital punishment represent unquestioning allegiance to State power. It is a sign of trust in the absolute power of the government. This is the antithesis of democracy and freedom, but is crucial to acceptance of such policies as the Iraq war/occupation, torture, rendition, wiretapping, and nuclear weapons.

Pennsylvania Death Penalty activists desperately seek traction in a moratorium bill that would halt executions while the fairness of the death penalty is studied, and have changed their name from Pennylvania Abolitionists to Pennsylvanians for Alternatives to the Death Penalty. Of course, the same legislators that favor the death penalty want nothing to do with a moratorium either, and properly conflate any moratorium with attempts to abolish.

As Maria Weick, Pennsylvania State Death Penalty Abolition Coordinator for Amnesty International, stated, on the efforts to seek a moratorium or object to the methods of execution, "We are grasping at a moratorium because we don’t have a lick of a chance at abolition. We grasp at the mechanics of it because we can’t get a thoughtful discussion of its reality. On a moral, philosphical or spiritual level, we do not address the right issues. What is our definition of justice? We won’t address the deep questions, so we are left with train schedules."

JOE DeRAYMOND lives in Freemansburg, PA. He can be contacted at jderaymond@rcn.com