Why is lethal injection controversial?

Picture Editor - Sukey Richardson

By Marco Cretella

Sub-edited by Charis Hill and Lee Wyton

In June of this year, the US Supreme Court ruled that the controlled substance Midazolam could be used in lethal injection executions and that it did not break the Eighth Amendment of the Constitution which cites that ‘executions could not include cruel and unusual punishment’.
During the hearing, the Court heard testimony from Dr David Lubarsky, who stated that ‘Midazolam would not keep a person unconscious when that person had been given other drugs that caused extreme pain.’

Since June, a number of lethal injection executions using Midazolam have gone wrong, including that of Clayton Lockett. Lockett was said to have been conscious but convulsing and shaking, for 45 minutes before the drug wore off. He then died of a heart attack. Similarly, an Ohio inmate appeared unconscious after being given Midazolam but later began howling and grunting when further drugs were administered.

In August four Tennessee Death Row inmates filed a Federal Lawsuit asking for the right to choose to die by firing squad, a method of capital punishment, particularly common in the military and in times of war, rather than face execution by lethal injection. The inmates cited the tragic case of fellow Riverbend Maximum Security Institute prisoner Billy Ray Irick. Irick was recently executed by lethal injection using a combination of drugs including Midazolam, which went wrong as Irick was said to have remained ‘alert and sensate’ during his execution.

Irick was the first prisoner executed in Tennessee for 10 years, and the first Death Row inmate of that State to be killed by lethal injection using Midazolam in combination. At a post-execution challenge by lawyers concerning Tennessee’s lethal injection protocol, Dr David Lubarsky was again called to give evidence, and he stated that Irick “was aware and sensate during his execution, and would have experienced the feeling of choking, drowning in his own fluids, suffocating, being buried alive and the burning sensation caused by the injection of potassium cyanide.”

Midazolam first entered the public consciousness when it was named alongside another anti-anxiety medicine, Lorazepam, as the two drugs which caused Michael Jackson’s fatal overdose in 2009. Midazolam reduces anxiety by slowing down brain activity and can be used alongside other drugs, such as an anaesthetic before a patient has an operation, to reduce consciousness

Midazolam produces these sedative effects by binding a natural brain sedative called GABA, to brain receptors to stop the reception of electrical impulses, which tell the brain, how much pain the body is in. During lethal injection executions, high doses of the drug are used to induce unconsciousness, before other compounds are used to cause paralysis and stop the heart beating.

It would appear in some lethal injection executions, unconsciousness is not maintained nearly long enough, and, whilst the crimes of some of those facing the death penalty are horrific, it seems that in these instances this method of execution does indeed constitute, ‘cruel and unusual punishment’ and thereby breaks the Eighth Amendment.

What do you think? Drop a comment below to let us know your thoughts on the topic!

About Charis Hill 5 Articles
Charis graduated university with a degree in Law in 2015, and has very recently completed her Masters in Law. Charis is interested in law, politics and business. When Charis is not working you can find her taking fitness classes, relaxing with a good book or watching sport.

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