The Needle and the Damage Done

The execution system was halted last month in three states that account for almost a third of prisoners awaiting the sentence of death.

After a botched execution in Florida, Gov. Jeb Bush announced he was suspending the death penalty. Hours later on the same day, U.S. District Judge Jeremy Fogel halted executions in California on the grounds that the state’s current method of lethal injection violated the U.S. Constitution’s ban on cruel and unusual punishment.

Less than a week later, Maryland shut down its execution chamber, not technically because lethal injection is “cruel and unusual,” but because the procedure that the state uses has never been the subject of hearings where the public could make its opinion heard.

The rulings come as executions continued a long-term decline last year–53 people were put to death in 2006, a drop of almost half in the past seven years. The number of death sentences imposed by juries also continued to decline last year.

According to the Death Penalty Information Center, as 2006 ended, executions were on hold in 10 states that use the death penalty–more than a quarter of the total. In most cases, the lethal injection procedure is at issue.

Though the method of execution may seem like a narrow and technical issue, there should be no mistaking the importance of these rulings–both in actually slowing the pace of executions and in how they reflect the growing questioning of the death penalty among Americans.

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LETHAL INJECTION was introduced following the reinstatement of capital punishment three decades ago by a state medical examiner in Oklahoma who had no experience in pharmacology or anesthesia, nor did any research on the subject. Despite this, 37 out of 38 states that use the death penalty adopted the untested procedure, claiming that it was a more “humane” way to put someone to death.

A recently released Human Rights Watch study “found no evidence that any state seriously investigated whether other drugs or administration methods would be ‘more humane’ than the protocol it adopted.” As a coauthor of the study commented, prison officials “are more concerned with appearances than with the reality.”

This “reality” is that many of those executed by lethal injection may have suffered an excruciatingly painful death.

Three drugs are used to execute a person by lethal injection. The first drug sedates the prisoner, the second paralyzes them, and the third stops their heart. The evidence revealed in the California case shows that lethal injection is anything but the clean and painless medical procedure its supporters portray it to be.

Executions were first halted last February, when Judge Fogel delayed the scheduled execution of Michael Morales. He ordered anesthesiologists to be on hand for the execution, but no medical professional would participate.

In hearings held last September, witnesses explained how the last six prisoners put to death in San Quentin may have suffered torturous deaths–including Stanley Tookie Williams, who was killed on December 13, 2005. Williams, who weighed 250 pounds, was given the same sedative as a person half his size–because the state’s lethal injection procedure gives the same doses for every prisoner.

The hearings also revealed that the second, paralyzing drug in the three-drug lethal injection process is given for no other reason but to mask any sign of pain. This gives the appearance to people witnessing executions that the prisoner is falling asleep peacefully–when they instead could be feeling overwhelming pain, but can’t move or scream.

Indeed, animals are put to death in a more humane way. According to the Human Rights Watch, “[A]t least 30 states have banned the use of neuromuscular blocking agents like pancuronium bromide in animal euthanasia because of the danger of undetected and hence unrelieved suffering.”

In Stan Williams’ case, the paralyzing drug seemed to fail, according to Barbara Becnel, Stan’s advocate who coauthored several anti-gang violence books with him. Becnel witnessed the execution and described the 35-minute ordeal during stops on a national tour, called “Witness to Execution,” organized by the CEDP.

“His feet and part of his body started contorting and distorting,” Becnel said in a speech at the CEDP’s national convention in November in Chicago. “And I went from praying that we would get a miracle and that phone would ring to stop the execution, to praying that God would take him now, because I could see he was in trouble…

“Stanley Tookie Williams died a horrible, excruciatingly painful death, where he not only woke up to the horror of his lungs paralyzed, so he was being slowly smothered to death, but the drug that makes your heart stop makes your veins feel like they’re on fire at the same time as it causes a massive heart attack, so it’s as if someone picked up a Mack truck and put it on your chest.”

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THE FAMILY of Angel Nieves Diaz also witnessed firsthand the torturous death of a loved one as he was executed in Florida’s death chamber on December 13.

Some 15,000 people signed a clemency petition for Diaz, a native of Puerto Rico, where the death penalty was abolished in 1929, and the governor of Puerto Rico personally appealed for the execution to be halted.

Nevertheless, Diaz went to the death chamber. He spoke his last words in Spanish, saying, “The death penalty is not only a form of vengeance, but also a cowardly act by humans. I’m sorry for what is happening to me and my family who have been put through this.”

After that, an execution that was supposed to last no more than 15 minutes took more than twice that long. “It seemed like Angel Nieves Diaz would never die,” wrote Associated Press reporter Ron Word, who has witnessed more than 50 executions in Florida.

Some of the three chemicals in the lethal injection process didn’t go into Diaz’s veins, but instead into the tissue of his arms, leaving a 12-inch chemical burn on one and an 11-inch burn on the other.

Twenty-four minutes after the first chemicals were administered, Diaz was still moving and grimacing, blinking his eyes, and seemingly mouthing words. Prison officials then moved in to administer the chemicals of death for a second time.

In Puerto Rico, more than 100 attended Diaz’s funeral. “God chose my uncle to change history,” Jackeline Nieves said to reporters. “Now, the death penalty isn’t seen as something normal. It’s seen as the worst, most inhumane method.”

In spite of all this, Judge Fogel said in his ruling halting executions in California that he thought the lethal injection process “can be fixed.”

But why should the death penalty system–broken, harmful and of no use at all besides cold-blooded revenge–be fixed?

Lethal injection is only one small aspect of what’s wrong with the death penalty, but abolitionists can use this crack in the system to pry open and expose its many other flaws.

The single most obvious problem with the death penalty is that death sentences are given almost exclusively to defendants who are too poor to afford their own attorney. Also, African Americans continue to be sentenced to death and executed far out of proportion to their numbers in the population. And when it comes to these other issues, the execution machine is very cruel, but not that unusual.

Even if government officials can come up with an execution protocol that eliminates the possibility of prisoners being tortured to death, the death penalty will remain barbaric and sickening. Mixing the chemicals differently is no solution. Abolishing the death penalty is.

The debate over lethal injection offers an opening for abolitionists to work toward that goal. In Maryland, for example, activists are preparing for possible public hearings that could result from last month’s decision–and require public hearings on “the details of laying out what is the most efficient way of killing someone,” CEDP organizer Mike Stark told the Baltimore Sun.

“The Court of Appeals’ decision falls in line completely with how lethal injection has just ripped across the nation as an issue that really has turned out to be much more substantive than people initially thought.”

The issue of lethal injection is having a clear impact on the death penalty system–and providing a way for growing doubts about capital punishment to find a reflection. The fight over lethal injection could very well mark the beginning of the end of the death penalty.

MARLENE MARTIN, is national director of the Campaign to End the Death Penalty (CEDP).