FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail

Alabama’s Human Guinea Pigs: Burning People Alive on Death Row

Photo by The Pug Father | CC BY 2.0

Photo by The Pug Father | CC BY 2.0


Alabama’s last execution may have burned a man alive
because the “consciousness assessment” it administers is about as scientific as someone jostling you when you nod off on the sofa.

This is clear from the firsthand account of Ms. Terry Deep, a federal investigator who witnessed the execution of Christopher Brooks at Holman Prison in Atmore, Alabama on January 21, 2016.

Ms. Deep signed a sworn affidavit attached as an exhibit to an April 15, 2016 court filing in the case of Ronald Bert Smith detailing these observations; Mr. Smith is scheduled for execution in Alabama on December 8, 2016, and his federal defenders also represented Christopher Brooks.

Ms. Deep’s account goes like this:

“After the Warden called for order and read the execution warrant, Mr. Brooks made his final statement. Warden Davenport then left the execution chamber, leaving [a correctional officer, identified only as D.F.] and the prison chaplain in the execution chamber. The chaplain walked over to Mr. Brooks, held his hand, and stepped away. Mr. Brooks’ breathing became rapid and shallow. D.F. called out Mr. Brooks’ name, raised his eyelids and reached behind Mr. Brooks’ left arm momentarily. Mr. Brooks’ eyes were closed at the end of this activity. D.F. stepped away from Mr. Brooks. Mr. Brooks’ breathing further slowed. Before the curtains were closed, Mr. Brooks’ left eye opened, and was still open when the execution chamber curtains were closed.”

Using these critical observations, federal defenders based in Montgomery, Alabama, cogently argue that:

[Alabama’s] execution protocol uses potassium chloride, a drug that unquestionably causes an unconstitutional level of pain [.] [Alabama does] not intend to anesthetize [Ronald Smith]; rather, they intend to use a sedative with no analgesic properties to create the illusion of adequate anesthesia. [Alabama’s] protocol further creates an illusion of adequate anesthesia by having an untrained corrections officer conduct a “consciousness assessment” to determine whether an inmate is anesthetized prior to injection of potassium chloride, a drug that, if injected without adequate anesthesia, indisputably causes an unconstitutional level of pain.

Because of the way midazolam works in the human body, it could sedate an individual to the point where he was incapable of communicating that he was in pain while doing nothing to suppress the experience of pain. Because midazolam is a sedative and not an analgesic, there is a high likelihood that an inmate who receives a high dose of midazolam would be unable to respond to the noxious stimuli that constitute the ADOC’s consciousness check, but would still feel the excruciating effects of the second and third drugs.

In layman’s terms, what the public defenders are saying is, as human beings, if we insist on pumping caustic, corrosive drugs into other human beings, our Constitution, and specifically the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition of cruel and unusual punishment, demands it not cause excruciating pain.

In the case of lethal injection, I respectfully submit, this is an impossible burden to satisfy because (1) thankfully, exterminating human beings is hardly an exact science, and (2) corrections officers who execute in Alabama, and for that matter nationwide – whose government paychecks come with a duty to kill – are not, when it comes to administering lethal injections, the sharpest tools in the shed. See Stephanie Mencimer, “State Executioners: Untrained, Incompetent, and ‘Complete Idiots’” (Mother Jones, May 7, 2014) (quoting Dr. Jay Chapman, the Oklahoma coroner who helped create the modern lethal injection protocol, who observed in The New York Times in 2007, “It never occurred to me when we set this up that we’d have complete idiots administering the drugs.”).

In Alabama’s executions, including Mr. Brooks’, the critical “consciousness assessment” the federal public defenders say, “is performed by a corrections officer who has received no medical training, whereas anesthesiologists receive extensive training in order to assess a patient’s depth of anesthesia. Not only must they graduate from college and medical school, they must follow this with four years of training before they can be certified to practice anesthesiology without supervision.”

Anesthesiologists (the reputable ones in the U.S. at least), however, won’t help Alabama, or any other state, to whitewash – using a seemingly mundane and sterile-looking medical procedure – the violent torture that lethal injection is. As Dr. J. Jeffrey Andrews, Secretary of The American Board of Anesthesiology wrote in May of 2014:

“[We] should never confuse the death chamber with the operating room, lethal doses of execution drugs with anesthetic drugs, or the executioner with the anesthesiologist. Physicians should not be expected to act in ways that violate the ethics of medical practice, even if these acts are legal. Anesthesiologists are healers, not executioners.”

Furthermore, as the federal defenders in Alabama highlight, even if anesthesiologists did violate their professional code of ethics and participate in the ignominy of public executions (and specifically, the grim but oh so important “consciousness assessment”):

“[A]nesthesiologists do not take such action based solely on a manual assessment, they also rely on the use of devices that monitor vital signs. The events of Christopher Brooks’ execution indicate that Defendants’ crude assessment conducted by an individual with no medical training creates a substantial risk of pain in violation of the Eighth Amendment. Mr. Brooks’ left eye opened after the consciousness assessment and assuming they even noticed, no one from the ADOC took any action.”

The late Dr. Jack Kevorkian, nicknamed “Dr. Death,” was once, according to his New York Times obituary, called “a reckless instrument of death” who “poses a great threat to the public.” But, compared to corrections officers on the execution squad in Alabama, at least when Kevorkian sent people to their deaths, he had some medical training and whatever their efficacy, he used machines.

In a 1958 paper Kevorkian once authored called, “Capital Punishment or Capital Gain?,” he wrote:

“Most of us are well aware that the ultimate ‘laboratory’ for testing every medical fact, concept or device is man himself …. In this logical and proper sequence of trial, the human subject at the end, the ‘guinea pig,’ is and always will be, the most difficult link to procure …. Viewing the problem purely realistically, capital punishment as it exists today, offers an unrivaled opportunity [.]” (emphasis added)

It would appear the State of Alabama agrees.

More articles by:

Stephen Cooper is a former D.C. public defender who worked as an assistant federal public defender in Alabama between 2012 and 2015. He has contributed to numerous magazines and newspapers in the United States and overseas. He writes full-time and lives in Woodland Hills, California.

Weekend Edition
November 16, 2018
Friday - Sunday
Jonah Raskin
A California Jew in a Time of Anti-Semitism
Andrew Levine
Whither the Melting Pot?
Joshua Frank
Climate Change and Wildfires: The New Western Travesty
Nick Pemberton
The Revolution’s Here, Please Excuse Me While I Laugh
T.J. Coles
Israel Cannot Use Violent Self-Defense While Occupying Gaza
Rob Urie
Nuclear Weapons are a Nightmare Made in America
Paul Street
Barack von Obamenburg, Herr Donald, and Big Capitalist Hypocrisy: On How Fascism Happens
Jeffrey St. Clair
Roaming Charges: Fire is Sweeping Our Very Streets Today
Aidan O'Brien
Ireland’s New President, Other European Fools and the Abyss 
Pete Dolack
“Winners” in Amazon Sweepstakes Sure to be the Losers
Richard Eskow
Amazon, Go Home! Billions for Working People, But Not One Cent For Tribute
Ramzy Baroud
In Breach of Human Rights, Netanyahu Supports the Death Penalty against Palestinians
Brian Terrell
Ending the War in Yemen- Congressional Resolution is Not Enough!
John Laforge
Woolsey Fire Burns Toxic Santa Susana Reactor Site
Ralph Nader
The War Over Words: Republicans Easily Defeat the Democrats
M. G. Piety
Reading Plato in the Time of the Oligarchs
Rafael Correa
Ecuador’s Soft Coup and Political Persecution
Brian Cloughley
Aid Projects Can Work, But Not “Head-Smacking Stupid Ones”
David Swanson
A Tale of Two Marines
Robert Fantina
Democrats and the Mid-Term Elections
Joseph Flatley
The Fascist Creep: How Conspiracy Theories and an Unhinged President Created an Anti-Semitic Terrorist
Joseph Natoli
Twitter: Fast Track to the Id
William Hawes
Baselines for Activism: Brecht’s Stance, the New Science, and Planting Seeds
Bob Wing
Toward Racial Justice and a Third Reconstruction
Ron Jacobs
Hunter S. Thompson: Chronicling the Republic’s Fall
Oscar Gonzalez
Stan Lee and a Barrio Kid
Jack Rasmus
Election 2018 and the Unraveling of America
Sam Pizzigati
The Democrats Won Big, But Will They Go Bold?
Yves Engler
Canada and Saudi Arabia: Friends or Enemies?
Cesar Chelala
Can El Paso be a Model for Healing?
Mike Ferner
The Tragically Misnamed Paris Peace Conference
Barry Lando
Trump’s Enablers: Appalling Parallels
Ariel Dorfman
The Boy Who Taught Me About War and Peace
Binoy Kampmark
The Disgruntled Former Prime Minister
Faisal Khan
Is Dubai Really a Destination of Choice?
Arnold August
The Importance of Néstor García Iturbe, Cuban Intellectual
James Munson
An Indecisive War To End All Wars, I Mean the Midterm Elections
Nyla Ali Khan
Women as Repositories of Communal Values and Cultural Traditions
Dan Bacher
Judge Orders Moratorium on Offshore Fracking in Federal Waters off California
Christopher Brauchli
When Depravity Wins
Robby Sherwin
Here’s an Idea
Susan Block
Cucks, Cuckolding and Campaign Management
Louis Proyect
The Mafia and the Class Struggle (Part Two)
David Yearsley
Smoke on the Water: Jazz in San Francisco
Elliot Sperber
All of Those Bezos
FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail