Here’s The Scary Truth About Science & The Death Penalty

A recent pair of botched executions has renewed the debate over lethal injection and whether it’s actually less inhumane than other methods used to execute condemned prisoners.

In January, when Ohio used a new drug “cocktail” to execute convicted rapist and murderer Dennis McGuire, he reportedly gasped repeatedly and took more than 25 minutes to die. Days earlier, when Oklahoma executed Michael Lee Wilson, the convicted killer uttered these last words: “I feel my whole body burning.”

Leaving aside the issue of whether the death penalty itself is inhumane, one might think that science could be enlisted to help devise a method of execution that spares the condemned from needless suffering.

Certainly there are historical examples of scientists and physicians offering their execution expertise. In the late 19th Century, researchers in the U.S. developed the electric chair as a more humane alternative to public hangings. Despite their efforts, executions using the chair often proved to be quite grotesque. As U.S. Supreme Court Justice William Brennan wrote in a dissent to the Supreme Court in the case of Glass v. Louisiana (1985):

The prisoner’s eyeballs sometimes pop out and rest on [his] cheeks. The prisoner often defecates, urinates, and vomits blood and drool. The body turns bright red as its temperature rises, and the prisoner’s flesh swells and his skin stretches to the point of breaking. Sometimes the prisoner catches on fire … Witnesses hear a loud and sustained sound like bacon frying, and the sickly sweet smell of burning flesh permeates the chamber.

Roughly a century earlier, French physicians Joseph-Ignace Guillotin and Antoine Lois developed the guillotine to be a painless and efficient execution machine.

In any case, many doctors today are guided by the Hippocratic Oath, which forbids them from willfully inflicting harm on others.

“It is unethical for physicians (the only ones with the requisite knowledge) to participate in the unwilling demise of any human being,” Dr. David Lubarsky, anUniversity of Miami anesthesiologist who has conducted research on lethal injection, told The Huffington Post in an email. “We don’t kill people who want to live. We don’t help others kill people who want to live… Once you cross the line as an agent/enabler of the state to cause the death of someone not seeking to die, you are no longer a healer.”

When lethal injection got its start in 1977, the medical community certainly kept its distance.

As Deborah Denno, a Fordham University law professor who has testified in many lethal injection cases, said of the invention of the three-drug protocol typically used in lethal injection, “There was no medical testing of the drug combination. There was no science. I think it was the pretense of science and a medical veneer. It was basically concocted in an afternoon.”

Now, in some states, critical drug shortages have forced corrections departments to find new untested drug alternatives.

“It’s not like you have a scientific expert sitting there and saying ‘these are the drugs you should use and in this amount.’” Denno said. “To the contrary I think one of the reasons we see these constant problems and this jump from drug to drug is these people, either they’re getting no advice whatsoever or the advice they’re getting is very bad and it’s all under the table.”

Even if science could aid in the development of a more humane killing method, Denno said, those with the appropriate expertise are unlikely to get involved.

“In light of a long-standing history from the late 1800s up to the present time, I would be extraordinarily surprised if the scientific community ever got involved in this issue.”

Keep reading for a look at methods of execution in use at various times.

These Disturbing Truths Shed Light On The Cruelty Of The U.S. Death Penalty

Disturbing details about the botched execution of Oklahoma inmate Clayton Lockett have sparked a new debate on the death penalty.

Lockett died of a massive heart attack on April 29, after prison officials administered drugs in a new lethal injection combination that left him writhing and clenching his teeth on the gurney, though it’s unclear if the drugs were to blame. Lockett and another death row inmate, Charles Warner, previously had sued the state for refusing to disclose details about the execution drugs, including where they were obtained.

But the uncertainty about the new drug cocktail isn’t the only reason people should be skeptical of the death penalty …

The death penalty is likely taking the lives of innocent people.

According to a new statistical study appearing in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, almost 4 percent of U.S. capital punishment sentences are wrongful convictions, meaning about 1 in 25 people who are sentenced to death are likely innocent. This could mean that approximately 120 of the roughly 3,000 inmates currently on death row in America might not be guilty, and at least several of the 1,320 defendants executed since 1977 were innocent.

Executions can take longer than they should.

Prison officials told The Associated Press that, of the last 19 executions in Oklahoma, the average length was 6 to 12 minutes. Lockett was pronounced dead 45 minutesafter his execution began due to complications with the lethal injection procedure.

But Lockett’s not the only one to suffer on the gurney: On Jan. 16, Ohio executed convicted rapist and murderer Dennis McGuire by lethal injection with an untested combination of drugs including the sedative midazolam and the painkiller hydromorphone. It took him 25 minutes to die.

In 2006, it took Joseph Lewis Clark, who was executed by lethal injection, 86 minutes to die.

Executions are often botched.

Amherst law professor Austin Sarat examined every execution from 1890 to 2010 and found that 3 percent of all executions during those years did not go according to protocol. Though Sarat says these botched executions included decapitations at hangings and defendants catching fire in electric chairs, he also notes the percentage of executions not done properly hasn’t gone down with the adoption of lethal injection.

“Botched executions have not disappeared since America has adopted the current state-of-the art method of lethal injection,” Sarat wrote in a Boston Globe op-ed. “In fact, executions by lethal injection are botched at a higher rate than any of the other methods employed since the late 19th century, 7 percent.”

An attempted execution in 2009 was so botched that inmate Romell Broom actually lived. Broom’s execution was stopped after an execution team tried for two hours to find a suitable vein, sticking him with needles at least 18 times with pain so excruciating he cried and screamed.

The people being executed often feel discomfort or pain.

Michael Lee Wilson, who was executed by lethal injection at the Oklahoma State Penitentiary in January, told prison officials he could feel the combination of execution drugs just before his death.

I feel my whole body burning,” Wilson said before succumbing to the drugs.

The Texas Department of Criminal Justice maintains a website devoted to executed offenders, which includes each inmate’s last statement. Many of the statements contain phrases like “it’s burning“; “I feel it“; “I’m feeling it“; “I can feel it, taste it“; and “this stuff stings.”

“My left arm is killing me. It hurts bad,” said Jonathan Green, executed in October 2012.

Sarat noted that pain may be inevitable in executions.

“A close look at executions in America suggests that despite our best efforts, pain and potential for error are inseparable from the process through which the state extinguishes life — and that the conversation about capital punishment needs to take that fact into consideration,” Sarat wrote.

Death penalty trials are expensive.

Death penalty trials can cost millions more than non-death-penalty trials — a cost that’s placed on taxpayers. The Economist reports:

An execution itself is not expensive, but the years of appeals that precede it are. Defendants facing death tend to have more, better and costlier lawyers. Death-row inmates are more expensive to incarcerate, too: they usually have their own cells, with meals brought to them and multiple guards present for every visit. “It’s because of this myth that these people will be executed in a couple of months,” explains Richard Dieter of the Death Penalty Information Centre.

The price of execution drugs became 15 times higher from 2011 to 2012, costing nearly $1,300.

Very few countries perform executions, and we’re in some questionable company with the ones that do.

The United States was 1 of 22 countries to report executions in 2013, and it is the only country in the Americas to have carried out executions that year, according to Amnesty International. Japan and the U.S. were the only countries in the G-8 to have carried out executions that year.


We’re considering lowering our standards for how to execute people, rather than re-considering the idea itself.

A short supply of lethal injection drugs have led states to consider other methods of execution, including the new drug combination that left Lockett writhing on the gurney in the execution chamber.

Aside from sedatives and heart-stopping drugs, some lawmakers are considering execution methods of the past, including firing squads, electrocutions and gas chambers. Missouri state Rep. Rick Brattin (R), who in January proposed firing squads as an option for executions in his state, said his suggestion wasn’t an attempt to “time-warp.”

“It’s just that I foresee a problem, and I’m trying to come up with a solution that will be the most humane yet most economical for our state,” Brattin said, noting he thinks it’s unfair for relatives of murder victims to wait years, even decades, to see justice served.

The Science Of Lethal Injection: How Most Capital Punishments Work

You’re escorted into the small, windowless room that contains only a pale-turquoise gurney and two metal tables up against the wall. One table is neatly set with a pair of scissors, a small red bin, and strips of gauze. The stark cleanliness of the room is oddly disturbing and gives off a feeling of faux-comfort. A clock directly above the gurney hangs in the center of the white wall, its ticking an ominous premonition.


The next thing you notice is the large, cold mirror on the other wall facing the gurney. As you lie down on the gurney, you find yourself staring at this mirror, which is really a one-way mirror. Behind it sit the witnesses of the execution — some of your relatives, possibly several of the relatives of your victims. They’re able to watch you through that window, but you can only see the reflection of yourself lying there, like a specimen.

The prison officials strap you into the gurney and swab your arms with alcohol, then insert two IVs into each arm (one is the main line of execution; the other is a backup, just in case the first line fails). You see yourself in the mirror, lying helpless and strapped to the gurney — this is it. You’re about to be “put down.” They then start the saline drops, to make sure the IVs aren’t blocked throughout the process. You’re attached to a heart monitor so the prison officials will know when you’re dead.


The intravenous injection will involve a set sequence and several different drugs, given to you step-by-step. First, some form of anesthesia begins to get pumped into your veins — usually sodium thiopental or pentobarbital, meant to reduce pain and significantly decrease your breathing. This drug is technically not an analgesic or something that numbs pain nerves, but rather is meant to put you into unconsciousness that would, theoretically, prevent you from feeling pain. Within seconds, you begin to feel tired and heavy and you begin to doze off — into sleep or unconsciousness, you’re not sure.


Once you’re unconscious, the pancuronium bromide, or paralytic agent, begins to enter the IV — inducing paralysis of your muscles and lungs, which stops your breathing. Pancuronium bromide is a neuromuscular blocker that stops a nerve messenger, acetylcholine, from reaching the muscles. This ultimately causes muscular paralysis and respiratory arrest, which could lead to death by asphyxiation if the third drug isn’t administered.

Cardiac Arrest

And then, with potassium chloride, a salt substance, they stop your heart. This surge of chemicals impairs the heart by messing up its electrical signaling, ultimately inducing cardiac arrest, or complete stopping of the heart. The total amount of time it should take for you to die shouldn’t be more than 10 minutes.

Lethal injection is used primarily in situations of capital punishment, when a prison inmate is sentenced to death. It began as an attempt by governments to make the death penalty slightly more “humane.” The method was first proposed in 1888 by a New York doctor who claimed it would be cheaper than hanging, but it didn’t yet became implemented in the states. Some 50 years later, the method was used in Nazi Germany as euthanasia before being re-introduced in America in 1977. In that year, Jay Chapman, Oklahoma’s state medical examiner, proposed this “less painful” execution method: “An intravenous saline drip shall be started in the prisoner’s arm, into which shall be introduced a lethal injection consisting of an ultra-short-acting barbiturate in combination with a chemical paralytic.”

The law allowing lethal injection was passed in Oklahoma and is currently used by 35 states (though each state uses a different drug protocol). Traditionally, most states used the three-drug combination for lethal injections, involving an anesthetic, a paralytic agent, and potassium chloride. But ever since there has been a lethal drug shortage due to the EU ban, many states have had to adopt different methods, including “one drug,” “pentobarbital,” and “propofol.”

Indeed, getting a lethal injection is by far better than electrocution, hanging, or decapitation, like used in the old days. But research has shown that lethal injection isn’t devoid of pain. For example, a 2005 study found that four out of 10 prisoners might receive inadequate anesthesia, making the process far more painful than previously believed.

It seems smooth enough and should only take a few minutes, but recently several botched executions have taken place in the U.S., where it took up to two hours for some inmates to die. Their deaths were drawn out and often painful, involving burning sensations, convulsions, and gasping for breath. This is why some states have begun to debate whether lethal injection is truly “humane” (assisted in part by the 2011 European Union export ban on lethal drugs to the U.S., due to the fact that the EU calls for “universal abolition” of the death penalty). Otherresearchers have argued that not enough data or research exists on the current three-drug protocol (anesthesia, pancuronium bromide, and potassium chloride) for it to be entirely safe. But it will be quite some time before the U.S. will decide whether to follow in Europe’s footsteps and abolish lethal injection, or even the death penalty completely.