‘Botched’ execution really deliberate torture

Aubrey Harris, Campaign against the death penalty coordinator, Amnesty International Canada

Another ‘botched’ execution in the United States. There have been several this year – the most recent last Wednesday when Arizona spent two hours torturing Joseph Wood to death. The time has come to acknowledge these executions cannot possibly be called ‘botched’ anymore. This torture can only be described as deliberate.

“Botched” means that a process was ‘fouled up by incompetence or carelessness.’ Arguably carelessness is one possible explanation – but it is well known that the two drug combination used Wednesday in Arizona would result in prolonged and painful death. The US Supreme Court and others seem so willing to ignore evidence and expert testimony that there is no longer any reason to believe that a “humane” execution is intended or possible.

In 1872 long drop hanging was introduced to make for a swifter end. Despite this and other methods of execution developed since then, not one has proven infallible. Inmates survive the electric chair, body parts explode during electrocution, bullets miss vital organs, hangings result in slow strangulation or decapitation, guillotine blades ‘stick’ – failing to sever the neck – and gassing has produced prolonged agonizing death. Even if a totally painless method of killing is found, the psychological torture of death row itself makes for an inhumane punishment.

Lethal injection was discussed – and rejected – by the British Royal Commission on Capital Punishment more than 50 years ago. In 1977 it was adopted by Oklahoma and Texas and quickly followed by other states. The original three drug protocol was designed follow three stages: anesthesia, paralysis, kill. If the anaesthetic wore off or did not take effect the inmate, whether able to move or not, would be fully conscious through suffocation and organ failure.

In 2007 Amnesty International released a report highlighting the ongoing issues of ‘botched’ lethal injection executions using the old method. Botched lethal injection is not new.  In May 2014 an entire book[i] studying US ‘botched’ executions revealed that of ALL methods of execution used in the US from 1890 to 2010, lethal injection had the highest rate of being ‘botched.’

Since 1977 medical advances reduced the medical reliance on drugs like sodium thiopental (the anaesthetic used in the first stage) and pancuronium bromide (the paralytic). Safer (less lethal) alternatives were far more popular and useful for most patients. For ethical reasons and following efforts by human rights groups and individuals the production of sodium thiopental ceased in the USA. States began to seek alternative drugs and modifying their execution procedures.

It is at this stage that things got even more bizarre. Getting drugs became more difficult and the sources more obscure. The trade was forced underground. The European Union – a strong and united voice against the death penalty – restricted the sale or transfer of drugs that could be used in execution. US prisons went as far as falsified paperwork (even using nonexistent hospital numbers), stockpiling and ‘trading’ drugs with other jurisdictions and more recently crossing state lines to buy drugs with cash from compounding pharmacies. Compounding pharmacies are not subject to quality control scrutiny by the FDA, and they were also behind last year’s major outbreak of meningitis from contaminated drugs.

Like all drugs, lethal injection drugs have expiration dates and require specific handling. If any claims about competence and ‘humaneness’ are to be true the drugs must at least be the drugs chemically and functionally claimed. For this reason transparency of source, handling and qualifications of the execution team are crucial if anything claimed by the state is to be any better than ‘blind faith.’

In January the first ‘experiment’ with midazolam and hydromorphone to execute took place in Ohio. The execution went ahead despite testimony by an associate professor of anaesthesia at the Harvard School of Medicine[ii]:

“Inmate McGuire is at substantial, palpable, objectively intolerable risk of experiencing the agony and horrifying sensation of unrelenting air hunger during the midazolam/ hydromorphone execution under Ohio’s execution protocol.” – Declaration of David Waisel, M.D.

This prediction bore out after courts flatly ignored the testimony, it took 25 minutes to kill McGuire in front of his children on 16 January 2014.

Embarrassed by the regular headlines of incompetence and desperate to keep the supply lines open, states have sought to make the sources of their drugs official state secrets along with any information about the execution team or their credentials – the official line of these states is that they want to protect the supplier from unnamed ‘threats’ of abolitionists. One US Federal Court judge took issue with this level of secrecy, pointing out that under such secrecy laws the source of drugs used on an inmate could be “nothing more than a high school chemistry class[iii]”

Joseph Wood’s defence team appealed against the secrecy and received a brief respite (until the US Supreme Court overruled it). He sought transparency on the drug sources and skills of those about to carry out the second ‘execution’ ever to use these drugs.

McGuire’s execution and many ‘botched executions’ have happened this year and last. The memory is recent and the knowledge well publicised. Dr Waisel’s testimony was so accurate in McGuire’s execution (the only other midazolam and hydromorphone execution ever carried out), that the result in Arizona was entirely predictable. The incompetence of the plans were highlighted not only in the fact that it took nearly two hours to kill Wood, but in the recorded emergency appeal to halt the execution (after the first hour had not killed him), it was revealed that there was absolutely no contingency plan and if there was any ‘medical professional’ on site, they were incompetent to make the diagnosis of ‘brain death’ claimed by the state.

Before Wednesday’s execution we had the knowledge that lethal injection already has the highest rate of being ‘botched,’ that quality control of drugs and competency of administrators of lethal injection affect the outcome in all cases  and, that this drug combination is already predicted by medical experts and proven in practice to result in horrific pain and torture. This knowledge was not secret in any way.

One can only conclude that given this knowledge the tortured killing of Joseph Wood was not an accident – it was in fact the very design even if the state did not declare that as the intention. Punishment can never be humane where the death penalty is used.


[i] Sarat, Austin, Gruesome Spectacles Botched Executions and America’s Death Penalty, Stanford University Press, Stanford 2014 – http://sup.org/book.cgi?id=23979
[ii] https://www.documentcloud.org/documents/1006458-prof-waisel-declaration.html see also http://www.theguardian.com/world/2014/jan/20/doctor-angry-ohio-executed-inmate-using-untried-untested-procedure-dennis-mcguire
[iii] http://www.theguardian.com/world/2014/feb/26/death-penalty-judge-attacks-lethal-injection-drugs