By Lyndsey Kelly
Impunity Watch Reporter, North America
WASHINGTON, D.C., United States of America – Recent troubles with the lethal injection process has sparked controversy over the constitutionality of the death penalty process in the United States. “Botched” lethal injections in Oklahoma and Arizona have raised questions as to whether the medical personnel tasked with carrying out the procedures are skilled enough to humanely put an inmate to death.
Currently 32 states use the death penalty to sentence those convicted of the most heinous crimes. Nearly all of those states also require a physician to attend the executions. However, due to the nature of the procedure the American Medical association prohibits licensed physicians from assisting.
More specifically, guidelines set out by the American Medical Association state that a physician can confirm the death of an executed inmate, but cannot declare death, administer drugs, monitor vital signs, select injection sites, start an IV, supervise drug injections or consult with a person carrying out the injection. Doctors whom are discovered to have participated in the lethal injection process risk losing their licensure to practice medicine. Due to these restrictions, lesser-trained medical personnel often carry out executions.
The U.S. lethal injection process underwent fundamental changes in 2011, when the drug company, Hospira, stopped making short-acting barbiturate and general anesthetic sodium thiopental, due to concerns about its use in lethal injections. Thus, recent problems with executions could be a result of medical personnel in the death chamber not being familiar with mixing or administering the new lethal cocktail.
Recently, in Arizona, the execution of convicted double murderer Joseph Wood took at least two doses of a lethal drug cocktail to execute the inmate. Witnesses say that Wood gasped and struggles for breath for more than 90 minutes before dying. Wood’s execution was one of the longest in U.S. history. The length of time it took for the execution is not the issue. The real issue is whether the procedure constituted cruel and unusual punishment, which would be prohibited by the U.S. constitution.
Arizona has since halted executions pending a review of its death penalty procedures. Despite the stay in executions, Arizona Department of Corrections Director Charles Ryan defended the execution, stating that the execution team, including a licensed medical doctor verified multiple times during the procedure that Wood was, “comatose and never in pain.”
For more information, please see the following:
BBC – Arizona Halts Executions After Joseph Wood Case – 26 July 2014.
L.A. TIMES – How Did Arizona Execution Go Wrong – 26 July 2014.
REUTERS – Troubled U.S. Executions Raise Questions About Doctors In Death Chambers – 26 July 2014.
SEATTLE TIMES – How Did The Arizona Execution Go Wrong – 26 July 2014.