Lethal injections challenged

Dan Glaister

Los Angeles: The use of a cocktail of drugs to execute prisoners has come under examination by the U.S. Supreme Court, in a case that could determine the future of the practice.

Executions by lethal injection have been on hold since September in the three dozen states that use the method, pending the hearing in a case that challenges the state of Kentucky’s use of a three-drug cocktail which is supposed to knock out, paralyse and then kill.

The legal challenge, brought by two college students, argues that the method is inhumane and that life in prison is an appropriate alternative. “You have the right to die with dignity,” said Gira Joshi, one of the two students.

Five prominent veterinarians have testified that the method used in Kentucky does not meet the state’s minimum standards for putting down animals. Though the details are secret, it is thought that Kentucky, like most states that favour lethal injection, uses the three-drug cocktail.

Opponents argue that if the initial anaesthetic is not administered properly, or fails to work, the excruciating pain caused by the third drug is masked by the second, paralysing drug.

The suggestion that the method thus constitutes “cruel and unusual punishment,” in contravention of the U.S. constitution, is supported by evidence from executions around the country.

During an execution in Florida in 2006, Angel Nieves Diaz (55) appeared to grimace and struggle for 30 minutes until a second dose of the lethal drugs was administered.

Opponents also argue that the prison staff who administer the drugs are untrained, and that many execution chambers are inadequate, with poor lighting and cramped conditions. Medical staff have refused to take part in executions in several states, because they say it violates the Hippocratic oath to preserve life.

DNA testing has resulted in several high-profile exonerations of death row prisoners. — © Guardian Newspapers Limited, 2008