Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Lethal Injections

Bloggers Unite for Human Rights

I offer the following post as a participant in "Unite For Human Rights," a campaign co-sponsored by BlogCatalog and Amnesty International USA.

Last month, in Baze v. Rees, the U.S Supreme Court dashed the hopes of human rights activists and ruled 7-2 that lethal injection in Kentucky does not constitute cruel and unusual punishment as defined by the constitution. In a narrowly technical ruling, the Court found that this method of execution under death penalty statutes was legal so long as there was no "substantial risk" of pain that could be alleviated by participating health professionals.

In response to the court decision, Amnesty International USA released a public statement decrying the government's "preoccupation with lethal injection," calling it a "distraction from myriad problems currently plaguing the death penalty system. Incompetent counsel, prosecutorial misconduct and racial, class and geographic bias are just the tip of the iceberg in a system that is flawed at its very core. "

Lamentably, the ruling does little to address the real issues of lethal injection, and the manner in which this procedure violates the Eighth Amendment prohibiting cruel and unusual punishment. Justice Alito wrote on behalf of the majority: " ... a suggested modification of a lethal injection protocol cannot be regarded as 'feasible' or 'readily' available if the modification would require participation-- either in carrying out the execution or in training those who carry out the execution--by persons whose professional ethics rules or traditions impede their participation."

That is exactly the problem: Medical professionals want nothing to do with this procedure. In fact, the technicians in charge of inserting the IV catheters that deliver the poisonous drugs into the prisoner's veins have gone on record as opposing participation in lethal injections. In 2006, a California execution was postponed when two anesthesiologists refused to oversee the administration of a barbiturate and two other drugs at a scheduled execution. Since then, the National Association of Emergency Medical Technicians (NAEMT) has strongly opposed the participation of licensed EMTs and paramedics in execution by lethal injection.

Dennis Welch, a senior writer for Gallup, notes: "For many years, capital punishment was carried out by firing squad, the gas chamber, the electric chair, hanging, or decapitation. In light of those methods, how can lethal injection be considered 'cruel and unusual'? The argument is that human error during the lethal injection process can lead to problems, sometimes causing an extended period of time (up to 45 minutes) before the person dies."

For this reason, states have looked to the courts for help, but the recent Supreme Court decision brings more confusion than clarity to the issue. Sarah Tofte, a researcher at Human Rights Watch and co-author of a 2006 report on executions by lethal injection in the United States, states emphatically: “Lethal injection is not as humane as it might appear to be. There is mounting evidence that condemned prisoners are at risk of suffering excruciating pain."

The New York Times reported that "while most states use a method similar to Kentucky’s, a number of them have adopted additional safeguards to ensure that an inmate is properly anesthetized by the initial drug in the sequence, a barbiturate, before administration of the second two, which paralyze the muscles and stop the heart."

Significant dissents were heard from Justices Ginsberg and Souter, according to the Times report. Their dissenting opinion "listed several of these states and described the extra steps they have taken, to show that Kentucky could and should be required to do a better job. The states she named were Alabama, California, Florida, Indiana and Missouri."

1 comment:

Dave Donelson said...

Thanks for your thoughts on this important human rights issue. As the Preamble to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights reminds us, “…recognition of the inherent dignity and of the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family is the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world.”

Dave Donelson, author of Heart of Diamonds

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