Death Penalty

The Trouble with Tennessee's Lethal Injection Drugs

"This whole question of how we kill our prisoners is sort of a sideshow when the system is as broken as it is."

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Tennessee plans to execute three death row inmates this year, despite serious concerns about the state's lethal injection drugs.

The inmates facing execution are Nicholas Todd Sutton (scheduled to be killed on February 20), Oscar Franklin Smith (scheduled for June 4), and Harold Wayne Nichols (scheduled for August 4). Last week, Smith's lawyers filed a complaint detailing problems with potassium chloride, one of drugs in the state's three-drug protocol. The drug induces cardiac arrest, but it is possible for consciousness to continue for as long as three minutes after the heart has already stopped. Meanwhile, the intravenous injection of the drug can cause a "searing, burning" sensation throughout the veins. With the administration of paralytics, execution staff and witnesses are prevented from seeing an inmate's true reaction to the painful process.

The complaint also includes an email between state prison officials showing that the state has been aware as early as August 2018 that the drug is not mixing properly. Administered intravenously, the compounded potassium chloride will feel like rocks entering the body. It may also fail to reach the heart, meaning that the subject could die in another, even more painful way: slowly suffocated to death by the previously administered paralytic.

Smith's attorneys also note that the state's supply of vecuronium bromide, the paralytic in its three-drug solution, expired in November 2019. Emails included in the complaint show that the state is interested in obtaining pentobarbital as a replacement. This may be less painful than Tennessee's current three-drug protocol, but pentobarbital was linked to a set of botched executions in Oklahoma in 2014.

At least three death row inmates have chosen to die by electric chair since 2018, believing the state's three-drug protocol to be a worse fate.

"This whole question of how we kill our prisoners is sort of a sideshow when the system is as broken as it is," Abraham Bonowitz, co-director of Death Penalty Action, tells Reason. "All of that really exposes the flaws of the system."

This isn't the first time a state has behaved improperly when faced with a limited supply of execution drugs. Arkansas, for example, rushed to execute four of its death row inmates in 2017 because its drugs were expiring. Among those killed was Ledell Lee, whom the Innocence Project and the American Civil Liberties Union now believe died for a murder that he likely did not commit. And in 2014, Louisiana tricked a hospital into providing a drug needed to carry out an execution. The state suggested that the drug was needed for a "medical patient," leading the hospital to believe it was treating a sick inmate.

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  1. The drug induces cardiac arrest, but it is possible for consciousness to continue for as long as three minutes after the heart has already stopped. Meanwhile, the intravenous injection of the drug can cause a “searing, burning” sensation throughout the veins. With the administration of paralytics, execution staff and witnesses are prevented from seeing an inmate’s true reaction to the painful process.

    Yeah, life’s a real bitch sometimes.

    1. I’ll do it if I can behead them with my sword. I’m stocking up on quickenings ‘ahead’ of the coming civil war with the progs.

    2. Why not just go with an overdose of morphine? It’s lethal, it’s readily available, and I’ll bet half the inmates in death row would drop their appeals if they knew that’s how they were going.

  2. the state’s supply of vecuronium bromide, the paralytic in its three-drug solution, expired in November 2019

    Maybe it’s just me, but I find it hard to believe these compounds are ineffective the day after they expire. It’s not milk, you know?

    1. It’s not milk, you know?

      There’s a name for people who agree that milk should be drunk, and not wasted, but absolutely refuse to drink it the day after it expires; coward.

    2. The FDA standard for expiration dates is a guarantee of 90% of the potency stated on the label.

      And yes, manufacturers err on the side of caution, so almost certainly at that date most any drug will have over 90% potency remaining.

  3. I hear there’s plenty of fentanyl available.

    1. But the stuff’s so poisonous the handlers can’t be in the same room with it. Saw it on the news!

  4. This isn’t the first time a state has behaved improperly when faced with a limited supply of execution drugs.

    Like using carbon monoxide while the, um, client is sleeping?

    1. Why this isn’t the way executions are done is a good question.

      1. It is a good question. Possibly some people associate using carbon monoxide with the mobile killing vans used at one point by the Nazis, and shy away from it for that reason. But it really is the most painless way of killing someone. And no need to do it “while the [condemned] is sleeping”. Put him/her in a sealed room and send in the CO, and he/she WILL soon be sleeping. And simply won’t wake up.

        1. It’s the same anti-cruelty BS that always applied. People looking to absolve themselves of guilt can’t tolerate the amount of time it takes and the likelihood of panic. It’s easier to kill animals this way, but even they occasionally spook as the result of being slowly suffocated. Some people would see this as being inhuman.

    2. Like using carbon monoxide while the, um, client is sleeping?

      Probably half a dozen surgeries in my lifetime. I believe, a different drug cocktail every time. Worst case scenario was a little cold and a funny taste.

      These people are blatantly making shit up to convince people that the death penalty, that their predecessors chose as being humane, is no longer humane. Because morals changed or something.

      1. Its extremely disingenuous as legal arguments go.

    3. There are accounts of people who’ve mistakenly ended up in spaces with 100 percent nitrogen, or high vacuum, or other places with extremely low partial pressures of oxygen. The ones who were revived claim the process was very quick, and rather painless.

      The guy at NASA who ended up in a hard vacuum space noted the last thing he felt before unconsciousness was the saliva on his tongue boiling, which was disconcerting.

      Another part of the problem with the lethal injection protocol is that, staying out of politics like usual, the AMA won’t let licensed doctors or other medical personnel under their auspices perform any of the duties in an execution. Besides pronouncing the guy dead. Many criminals have had a life where they might not have easy veins to find and slip the IV into. Or that will hold the IV once injected.

      Death is messy. N2 asphyxiation via mask is one of the easiest ways to do it without leaving too much of a mess.

  5. Don’t they steal enough drugs from druggies to cause an overdose?

  6. It should be absolutely clear that if these people are suffering as a result of these drugs, it’s the result of anti-death penalty advocates and their predecessors.

    Most normal humans were completely OK with hangings, beheadings, and bullets until it offended some of these people’s pseudo-religious sensibilities. These inmates aren’t suffering more than their predecessors, it’s painfully obvious that these effeminate, morally-compromised fuckwads are trying to have their cake and eat it too.

  7. Render them unconscious by any effective method; slit their throats.
    “Painless” and 100% effective.

    1. This. I’ve never understood the need for dedicated execution drugs. If the goal is to render someone dead without inflicting avoidable pain, then why not just render them unconscious with conventional surgical anesthetics, then kill them by whatever means is handy, knowing they won’t feel a thing? Draining their blood would be one possible method.

      1. If the goal is to render someone dead without inflicting avoidable pain, then why not just render them unconscious with conventional surgical anesthetics,

        You have to have a license to obtain the drugs. One end-around established and perpetuated by the anti-death penalty community ensures that licensed physicians will jeopardize their accreditation with the AMA if they perform the execution.

        Killing a known violent felon might run afowl of ‘do no harm’ but, somehow, they manage to courageously walk the narrow path between not-executing a violent felon and cutting up a non-violent lump of cells.

        1. You have to have a license…

          Those laws and regulations could obviously be changed.

  8. It isn’t just the drugs used for execution that are being messed with. These drugs are quite reliable, produce unconsciousness promptly and reliably, and are safely and painlessly used in millions of people yearly in this country.
    But the anti death penalty crowd did successfully cause the elimination of one intravenous anesthetic drug, thiopental, in 2011, when they hounded the manufacturer into deciding to cease production. Perfectly good IV anesthetic used for 75 years, gone to satisfy someone’s noble quest. So now we are down to a single effective anesthetic agent, propofol (so ‘cruel’ that Michael Jackson sought this drug out to his ultimate demise). But with one IV drug now available for anesthesia in the US (too many side effects with ketamine and etomidate for routine use upon millions of people) that every time there is a production problem, hospitals wind up rationing propofol.
    Wonder how many death penalty foes are ready to take their surgery straight, without anesthetic, to show us just how serious they are about their moral convictions. (think not)

  9. Jeez, just change the medication you’re using to something less painful and controversial.

    I propose a 180 grain pellet of cuprous/lead injected at 2,500 feet per second to the brain stem, administered by the warden on a tarp in the alley behind the prison cafeteria. If we’re going to kill someone, do it right.

  10. So the current three dug cocktail contains potassium chloride, vecuronium and….

    ????

    Maybe you guys should try reporting instead of cutting and pasting from someone else’s press release. Because is there any chance the currently not named third drug is something that renders the victim unconscious? Thereby obviating the concerns about pain or death by suffocation?

    Any chance that third drug is midazolam?

    Shitty arguments based on incomplete information are shitty and deserve to lose.

  11. Hell, if potassium chloride is considered more horrible than hanging or firing squad then just leave it out. A fifteen minute infusion of midazolam, along with the vecuronium will guaranteed get the job done.

  12. There are lots of valid argument against the death penalty. These complaints about the drug protocol are not among them. The Eighth Amendment does not require that we wrap you in fuzzy blankets as we put you to death. Death is messy and painful. That’s true whether you’re dying in a hospital, in a car crash, being eaten by a mountain lion or in an execution chamber. We ought not to intentionally make the death penalty more painful than necessary but neither is the proper standard a guarantee of complete painlessness.

  13. “..how “we” kill our prisoners”? Nice friends you got there.

  14. How about no more death penalty?

    Never give the state the power of execution.

    1. I don’t see how that differs in principle from the state having the power to imprison people.

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