Editorial: In a civilized society, not even the most vicious crimes justify a death sentence

It is soul-bruising to contemplate the torture that 10-year-old Anthony Avalos endured in his Lancaster home for more than a week before dying last year. Whippings with a looped cord and belt. Repeatedly held upside down then dropped on his head. Getting slammed into pieces of furniture and against the floor. Hot sauce poured on his face and mouth.
The road map of the abuse stretched from head to toe on his small malnourished body — bruises, abrasions, scabs and cuts visible on the outside. Traumatic brain injury and soft tissue damage on the inside. All allegedly perpetrated by his mother, Heather Barron, and her boyfriend, Kareem Leiva.
RELATED | California: Prosecutors seeking death penalty in Anthony Avalos torture case
If ever a set of circumstances called for the death penalty, this would be it. Few were surprised when Los Angeles County prosecutors said Wednesday that if the couple is convicted of the torture-murder, the jury will be asked to recommend a death sentence.
Such ca…

AG Requests Indefinite Stay Of All Executions In Oklahoma

Oklahoma death chamber
Oklahoma death chamber
OKLAHOMA CITY - Oklahoma Attorney General Scott Pruitt issued a request to indefinitely suspend all scheduled execution dates in the state in light of the events that unfolded in the Glossip case on Wednesday.

Gov. Mary Fallin issued a 37-day stay for Richard Glossip after it was learned that the Department of Corrections did not have the specific drugs identified in execution protocol.

Around 2 p.m. on Thursday, Pruitt issued the request for an indefinite stay on all executions. The request states: “Due to the events of September 30, 2015…the Office of the Attorney General needs time to evaluate the events that transpired…ODOC’s acquisition of a drug contrary to protocol, and the ODOC’s internal procedures relative to the protocol.”

Benjamin Cole and John Marion Grant were both scheduled to be executed in October. Glossip’s execution date was moved to November 6.

Pruitt’s request went on to state, “The State has a strong interest in ensuring that the execution protocol is strictly followed. Therefore, the office of the Attorney General requests that all three executions be stayed indefinitely.”

Pruitt released the following statement regarding his request:

“The state owes it to the people of Oklahoma to ensure that, on their behalf, it can properly and lawfully administer the sentence of death imposed by juries for the most heinous crimes. Not until shortly before the scheduled execution did the Department of Corrections notify my office that it did not obtain the necessary drugs to carry out the execution in accordance with the protocol.
Until my office knows more about these circumstances and gains confidence that DOC can carry out executions in accordance with the execution protocol, I am asking the Oklahoma Court of Criminal Appeals to issue an indefinite stay of all scheduled executions. I am mindful of the families who have suffered an agonizing time through this process, and my heart breaks for them. At least three families have waited a combined 48 years for closure and finality after losing a loved one. Yet, they deserve to know, and all Oklahomans need to know with certainty, that the system is working as intended.”

OK-CADP spokesperson Rev. Adam Leathers released the following statement,

“We at the Oklahoma Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty are grateful for Oklahoma Attorney General Scott Pruitt’s recent request for the Oklahoma Court of Criminal Appeals to suspend all scheduled executions. We hope they will concur. However, we ask our fellow Oklahomans to consider all of the issues over the availability and supposed ‘safety’ of the three drug cocktail, as well as all of the repeated execution postponements, and all of the complexities and doubt of guilt surrounding Richard Gossip’s case. We must ask ourselves: ‘Is this all worth it?’ How many resources have we as a state wasted and accomplished nothing more than convincing the rest of the world we lack civility?”
Source: news9.com, Matthew Nuttle, October 1, 2015

Oklahoma AG Suspends Executions Indefinitely After Drug Mix-Up

The state realized it had purchased the wrong drug just hours before a Wednesday afternoon execution.

The Oklahoma attorney general has suspended all executions in the state following a disastrous lethal injection drug mix-up that occurred just hours before a scheduled Wednesday execution.

Attorney General Scott Pruitt (R) on Thursday afternoon wrote that his office "needs time to evaluate the events that transpired on September 30, 2015," including how the state Department of Corrections secured a drug contrary to protocol, and the DOC's internal protocol surrounding executions.

The order applies to the three inmates with scheduled executions: Benjamin Cole on Oct. 7, John Grant on Oct. 28 and Richard Glossip on Nov. 6.

Glossip was being prepared for his 3 p.m. execution Wednesday when DOC realized the state had purchased potassium acetate instead of potassium chloride.

Oklahoma has a three-drug protocol that uses a cocktail of midazolam to sedate the inmate, pancuronium bromide to paralyze him and potassium chloride to induce a heart attack.

According to an order from Gov. Mary Fallin (R), who issued the stay for Glossip's execution, the state is investigating whether it can lawfully use potassium acetate in executions.

Source: The Huffington Post, Kim Bellware, Associate Chicago Editor, October 1, 2015

How Do You Confuse Two Lethal Injection Drugs? We Asked a Pharmacologist

Science is often a complicated subject, but when it comes to lethal injection, the science is actually the simple part of the equation.

On Thursday, an investigation by The Oklahoman revealed that the lethal injection given to a prisoner in Oklahoma in January didn’t follow state protocols. Instead of giving Charles Frederick Warner a lethal dose of potassium chloride, as the protocol requires, records show executioners injected Warner with potassium acetate. Warner reportedly said “my body is on fire” as he died, a process that took 18 minutes.

In the wake of the news, Oklahoma Governor Mary Fallin has put a hold on all state executions until officials can sort out what happened. The controversy only adds onto the already swirling debate over whether another drug used in execution processes, midazolam, is safe and effective.

The nuances of the ethical and legal questions in this debate are complicated, but the science behind it all is pretty straightforward. David J. Kroll is a molecular cancer pharmacologist, a former university professor, and a freelance science journalist. He walked us through the effects of all the chemicals used in a lethal injection, the questions about midazolam, and what the difference between potassium chloride and potassium acetate even is.

MOTHERBOARD: First off, what is the difference between potassium chloride and potassium acetate?

The difference is very subtle. Approximately the same dose of potassium chloride or potassium acetate will effectively kill a person and the reason is that the active constituent is the potassium itself. It’s just really a salt, which means you have a positive charged substance (the potassium) and a negative charged substance (either chloride or acetate).

The average person would recognize sodium chloride is table salt. If you like salt and vinegar potato chips, you will have experienced sodium acetate, which is just a salty version of vinegar. The sodium is still there. It might taste a little different, but if you were to look at your blood stream it would have the same increase in sodium as if you ate the same amount of sodium chloride.

So since the potassium is still there, from an execution standpoint, it’s no different?
It’s just a type of potassium. So while the name looks different, the key element in there is the same.

What are these drugs usually used for?

The number one use for potassium chloride is to supplement potassium lost when a person with high blood pressure is taking a diuretic, or "water pill," that works on the kidney so you pee more. In fact, some patients are given potassium tablets to take by mouth since they lose so much in the extra volume of urine they pass. Potassium chloride can also be used for any kind of dehydration due to nausea or vomiting or poor nutrition, or if someone has diabetes or kidney problems, because the kidneys in particular control how your body regulates the sodium and potassium balance.

Potassium acetate is around but it’s not commonly used in regular medicine. I talked to a few doctors about this, and they said it’s most often used for people who can’t eat. When you put the stuff directly in someone’s veins: vitamins, sugar, other salts, amino acids—everything you’re missing because you can’t eat—a lot of those come in the chloride form, so you don't want to add the extra chloride with the potassium. So they use potassium acetate instead in this very specialized situation.

How does potassium kill a person?

We need potassium to live, but the body keeps very low concentrations of potassium in the blood. Most of it is inside of muscle cells. But if you screw with that balance of the potassium inside and outside of the cells you can affect muscle activity. An high enough injection of potassium will cause the heart to go into cardiac arrest.

If potassium is the “lethal” part of the equation, what are all these other drug injections for?
The idea is to use a barbiturate, a dose of a muscle-blocking agent, and then potassium. The whole idea is: first you put the person to sleep, second you paralyze their muscles, and third you paralyze their heart and all other muscles with an overdose of potassium.

We know that first step is now achieved in Oklahoma using midazolam. How does it work?

Midazolam is a benzodiazepine, which were discovered by a chemist in the 1960s who was looking for a safer alternative to barbiturates. What barbiturates did was they acted on an inhibitory neurotransmitter receptor called the GABA receptor. They were great drugs as sedatives for surgery, anxiety, and epilepsy. The problem was: you take too much of it and it can kill you by itself.

Benzodiazepines also act on the GABA receptor, but this chemist found that it’s sort of a self-limited effect. It only works up to a certain ceiling, no matter how much more of a dose that you give.

And that’s part of the controversy, right?

Ultimately, midazolam doesn’t produce a depth of anesthesia of the old barbiturates. The issue is that because the midazolam doesn’t produce a complete anesthesia, the body can still have reflex reactions to pain.

If a person was properly sedated, would it make any difference whether the executioner used potassium chloride or potassium acetate?
It wouldn’t make a difference, no, as long as they use the same number of milliequivalents.

Okay what about the second step—the paralysis—how is that achieved?

It’s a neuromuscular blocking agent, which is actually based on South American hunting arrow poisons. They would use it to paralyze their prey, and we have since adopted that natural chemical and made changes to it, but it essentially works the same way.

It works on a receptor where your nerves touch your skeletal muscle. It blocks the muscle side of the synapse—the gap point—between the nerve and the muscle, causing paralysis at a high enough level. The ones used in lethal injection are pancuronium or vecuronium.

Thanks so much. Is there anything else you’d like to add?

It’s horrible that we talk about these medical things being used to execute a person but I think the acetate versus chloride thing, for this purpose, is only complicated because of legal issues. And I guarantee that if any corrections institute wants to use potassium acetate to execute a prisoner, it’s going to have to go through a whole painful, million-dollar legal process that I think will be just as prolonged as the midazolam debate.

Source: Motherboard, Kaleigh Rogers, October 9, 2015

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