USA | It Is Time to End the Lethal Injection Mess

On June 23, amidst all furor over its gun rights and abortion decisions, the Supreme Court handed down a little noticed death penalty decision, Nance v Ward . In that case, a five-Justice majority ruled that death row inmates could file suits using 42 U.S.C. Section 1983, a federal law that authorizes citizens to sue in federal court for the deprivation of rights, to bring suit alleging that an execution method violated the Eighth Amendment. Michael Nance, who was sentenced to death in 2002, will now be able to proceed with his suit contesting Georgia’s plan to execute him by lethal injection. Nance suffers from medical conditions that have compromised his veins. To use lethal injection, the only execution method now authorized by state law, prison authorities would have to “cut his neck” to establish an intravenous execution line. He also claims that his long-time use of a drug for back pain would diminish the effect of the sedative used in Georgia’s drug cocktail. Nance alleges that

Pharma giant Hospira fails to act on paralysis drug responsible for ‘torturous’ executions

Global pharmaceutical firm, Hospira, is now the only company supplying US execution chambers with the paralysis drug used in lethal injections. Pancuronium bromide is the second drug in the lethal injection ‘cocktail’ and serves to paralyse the prisoner before the lethal dose of potassium chloride is administered.
Israeli manufacturer, Teva, recently became the latest manufacturer to exit the execution drug trade, leaving Hospira solely responsible for the US supply of the drug. According to expert anaesthesiologist, Dr. Mark Heath, Pancuronium bromide serves no medical purpose in the lethal injection procedure, but rather a ‘cosmetic’ purpose, serving to mask any possible suffering of the inmate. If not properly anesthetised by the first drug in the cocktail, a prisoner will be paralysed by the pancuronium bromide, unable to move, speak or even motion that something has gone wrong. Dr. Heath attests ‘there is no dispute that the asphyxiation caused by pancuronium and the caustic burning sensation caused by potassium would be agonizing in the absence of adequate anesthesia’.

Earlier this month, legal action charity Reprieve wrote to Hospira to draw their attention to the issue. They offered to assist Hospira in creating a new distribution system which would allow the company to control who is able to use their product and for what purpose. Reprieve recently worked successfully with Danish manufacturer Lundbeck to restrict the distribution of pentobarbital, a product which was also being used in executions. Lundbeck’s effective action means that US prisons are now blocked from buying their drugs for use in executions. Hospira, a company which has long stated its opposition to the use of its drugs in executions, could take similar steps to prevent such abuse. However, they have not replied to Reprieve’s letter and offer of assistance.
On average, it takes an anaesthesiologist 5,110 days’ training before he is fully qualified to administer anaesthesia in hospitals; prison wardens are given an average of 2.5 days’ training before they are deemed qualified to administer anaesthesia in lethal injection procedures. Little surprise that executions are so frequently ‘botched’. If the first drug, the anaesthetic, is not properly administered, the prisoner remains conscious as the second and third drugs are injected, causing ‘agonizing pain’. The phenomenon has been likened to that of ‘anaesthesia awareness’ in surgery. Victims of anaesthesia awareness testify that the pain and terror is ‘cruel beyond description’.  

Reprieve investigator Maya Foa said: "Hospira’s silence on this issue is deeply disturbing. The potential for torture associated with this illegitimate use of their drugs is immense. Indeed, the American Veterinary Association has expressly condemned the use of paralytic agents in animal euthanasia. That prisoners are treated worse than animals by the state is scandalous; that healthcare provider Hospira should be complicit in this is nothing short of disgraceful."

Source: Reprieve, October 31, 2011

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