Getting Our Act Together on the Death Penalty

by Diane Dimond on February 2, 2015

lethal-injectionManonTablewAttendant

This is What the Death Penalty Looks Like

If we, as a nation, are going to allow the execution of convicted murderers, rapists and traitors can’t we get our act together about how to take their lives?

Back in 2010, European countries began a movement to abolish the death penalty around the world.

European pharmaceutical companies began to refuse to sell any anesthetics to the U.S. that could be used to facilitate an execution. And that left our prisons, in the more than 30 states that carry out the death penalty, without easy access to the medications needed to kill the condemned.

Since then these states have used a mish-mash of drugs to carry out executions. Some have used a two-drug or three-drug cocktail, administered in stages.

Why Can’t We Decide What Goes in A Condemn’s Arm?

The first stage is designed to render the convict unconscious so they feel no pain as other heart-stopping drugs are introduced. Other states use just one drug, like pentobarbital, but that has also begun to be difficult to procure.

One state, Missouri, announced it would use propofol – the anesthetic cited in the death of entertainer Michael Jackson – but then revised its lethal injection procedure before doing so.

Midazolam, hydromorphone, sodium thiopental, the barbiturate anesthetic Brevital … all part of the grand experiment our penal institutions have used in this modern day quest to carry out  “humane executions.” Sounds like an oxymoron to me.

Gallup Polls Say Americans SUPPORT Capital Punishment

Polls Say Most Americans SUPPORT Capital Punishment

This is not the place to argue about the pros or cons of the death penalty. According to the latest Gallup poll 63% of Americans are in favor of capital punishment. (Although it should be noted that number has tumbled since the mid-90’s when 80% favored the idea)

So it goes, majority rules. So, when do we get our collective act together and figure out a single best way to do this that is beyond reproach? Why have we dithered and experimented with it for so long? If we truly support the idea of the death penalty we should certainly agree on an acceptable process.

The U.S. Supreme Court now says it will hear a challenge to Oklahoma’s lethal injection practices. And the justices stayed the pending execution of the three Oklahoma convicts whose names appear on the case.  Oklahoma employs a commonly used three-drug protocol that relies on Midazolam as the first drug.

It Guarantees Protection from Cruel & Unusual Punishment

It Guarantees Protection from Cruel & Unusual Punishment

Lawyers for the condemned will argue that the drug is unreliable and has the potential to cause terrible suffering. They’ll say that the procedure violates a citizen’s constitutional right to be protected from cruel and unusual punishment.

I know, I know – those facing the executioner have made others suffer in oftentimes incomprehensible ways. Why should we care if they suffer a bit as they die? Why do we hear so much about a convict’s rights at the time of execution and so little about the grisly crime for which they were convicted?

Again, this is not the place to argue the penalty. Rather, we should discuss a unified process for carrying out the law.

The high court will decide on Oklahoma’s procedure but it will do nothing concrete that guides the nation toward a unified way to execute its worst criminals. I guess we have to demand that.

LetalInjectionFiring SquadPractice

Utah Still Allows Death by Firing Squad

In the past, I’ve suggested a return to the firing squad although I’m no ardent supporter of the death penalty. A firing squad would be fast, efficient, no fuss or muss.

But if we’re determined to painlessly put to sleep our convicts with a lethal injection how about using a massive dose of heroin? Heaven knows every state and the federal government has an ample supply of the confiscated drug which brings death so quickly that addicts are often found with the needle still in their arm. (Actor Seymour Hoffman to name just one)

Anesthesiologists successfully put thousands of people into states of unconsciousness every day so why can’t executioners? We euthanize our ailing pets but would the drug cocktail a veterinarian uses even work on humans? Is anyone studying this?

Let's Decide Which Process is Best. Now.

Let’s Decide Which Med is Best. Now.

As one vet wrote to the editor of the New York Times, “If we MUST persist in executing people, how about we convene a panel of MD’s, get some good options, and then pass a law making it illegal for drug companies to refuse to provide the drugs?”

I’m not sure such a law could be passed but I know its way past time for this discussion to take place.

If we can’t discuss it — maybe we should stop doing it.

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{ 13 comments… read them below or add one }

Diane Dimond February 3, 2015 at 7:45 am

ABQ Journal Reader Gary writes:

“First of all, I am 100% behind you on everything you said today. But has anyone considered another method that has proven to be fully instantaneous, painless, and doesn’t rely on overseas drugs?

Explosion. Works for jihadists, just not always for their victims.

Put the condemned way out in a open field on the prison grounds, in a pit lined with common explosives such as ANFO, secured of course, and with a cheap, expendable video feed to document he/she is still in there at the moment of detonation. Presto! All trace of them is instantly wiped from the earth. No memorial graves, no harvesting of organs for people who might not like a piece of a felon in them, no additional expense of burial for the state, etc. The public can even watch at a distance, without the threat of PTSD after watching the face of the condemned (possibly in agony during a botched injection) up close in a death chamber viewing room.

Just a thought. I’ll go away now.”
Gary

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Diane Dimond February 3, 2015 at 7:48 am

ABQ Journal Reader Joel S. Davis writes:

“Dear Ms. Diamond, (sic)

This addresses the issue you raised in your column, “Can we agree on acceptable process for executions,” appearing in the Albuquerque Journal [31 January].

I suggest that continually searching for new lethal injection drugs is a needless exercise. There are ways to conduct executions which would not only be more humane, but considerably easier to implement and less subject to errors. Nitrogen asphyxiation, for example, involves simply limiting the condemned’s atmosphere to air without the oxygen– i.e., nitrogen, a bit of humidity, etc. Nitrogen is colorless, odorless, and, in itself, harmless– it’s nearly 80% of the normal air we breathe. We are not equipped to perceive lack of oxygen; when we feel like we’re suffocating, it’s because we perceive carbon dioxide as building up. However, in an atmosphere of nitrogen, one exhales and gets rid of carbon dioxide normally. Without oxygen, though, as countless high altitude experiments have demonstrated, one rapidly loses reasoning ability and consciousness– maintaining consciousness by the brain takes more oxygen than just about any other body function– followed shortly thereafter by death. In general, it takes special training to even have a chance of recognizing the symptoms of such hypoxia (lack of oxygen) in the last tens of seconds of consciousness one has.

Nitrogen asphyxiation has many advantages as a method of execution. It does not require a physician to implement, causes no physical pain or discomfort, and has virtually nothing that can go wrong which might cause physical discomfort to the condemned. Consciousness simply cannot be maintained by the brain given insufficient oxygen; it is the first thing to go. Since oxygen is also necessary for human life, death follows inevitably. I note in passing that hypoxia is a suicide technique of choice for many, because it’s painless and the necessary gas (nitrogen or helium) is easy to come by. I further note that while pharmaceutical companies have been pressured into not selling lethal injection drugs, helium and nitrogen are widely available and, in the case of nitrogen, fairly easy to distill from air or otherwise produce. Finally, while the Supreme Court has determined that lethal injection does not rise to the level of cruel and unusual punishment, hypoxia remains a better, more reliable way. Ironically, that may well be the weakness of nitrogen asphyxiation. It’s so reliable and humane that death penalty opponents are loathe to have it take so much wind from their sails. That was evidenced by a recent column in the New York Times, for example [27 January], which accuses anyone of suggesting such a method as one of those “who engage in macabre debates about the relative efficiency of, say, nitrogen gas.” They go on to offer a literal and nonsensical falsehood: “The act of killing itself is irredeemably brutal and violent.” They also reveal their motives– which don’t include consideration of any actual facts: “Many who oppose the death penalty, this page included, are obviously not interested in identifying more “humane” methods of execution; the idea itself is a contradiction in terms.”

If we can get beyond sheer propaganda, the facts indicate that there are indeed very humane methods of execution.”

Joel S. Davis

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Diane Dimond February 3, 2015 at 7:49 am

I agree, Mr. Davis, that the answer to the lethal injection problem is easily attainable. We just need to agree on a reliable method. To continue to experiment on the condemned seems macabre to me. ~ DD

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Diane Dimond February 3, 2015 at 5:34 pm

Facebook Friend Dave Imb writes:

“Why do we even execute people in the first place? It’s barbaric and doesn’t deter crime.”

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Diane Dimond February 3, 2015 at 5:36 pm

Facebook Friend Alan Fountain writes:

” Ever since I first heard this as a youth it felt America was Schizophrenic as a culture to Murder and Kill someone for doing what you hold to be HEINOUS … killing or Murdering. Life in Prison with appropriate executed misery to the offender is where suffering and remorse can happen. Many like an eye for an eye, but I feel either you as a society say life is valuable or you teach society man does have the right to choice the fate and take the life of another. Either killing is wrong or is not– regardless if 12 jurors decide or one murderous heart acts alone. Its still the same act of thinking the human condition is omnipotent with distorted boundaries. Let them chop rocks for life that is misery.”

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Diane Dimond February 3, 2015 at 5:39 pm

Facebook Friend Stone Grissom writes:

“Well written and thought provoking article. I think the answer lies within the question itself. The two can’t be separated. We struggle in this country on the “method” of executing our citizens because we constantly must grapple with the idea that we are executing someone. That’s not the biggest problem with the death penalty, e.g., racial, economic, gender disparities; a lack of uniformed application of the death penalty between states, etc. All that, perhaps, is a different discussion. However, just looking at the “method” of death, it can’t be viewed in isolation to our sense of humanity. That’s the problem; the two are linked, because we’re humans. The DP may be popular in pollings, but that’s because the question is asked over the phone to someone far distanced from the act itself. A real life person must commit the act that in any other circumstance would be cold-blooded murder. That’s a tough thing to ask of an individual. Taking the 8th Amendment out of the argument (I’m assuming we’re not bound to the legal constitutional arguments that direct us to humanely kill people), we send soldiers to kill strangers and they come back with PTSD. Imagine what toll it could take on an individual to personally kill people over and over year after year. Does that person become a serial killer or just a person working for the state? We know the toll is great, because we take great strides to insulate individuals from having to be responsible for the act. Thus, we build computerized machines to inject, even firing squads have an “anonymous” bullet so the shooters wouldn’t know who committed the act. Plus, the “different discussion” – the one concerning the application of the DP will always creep into our humanity. What if we’re wrong about the act? What if the person is innocent? Those may only be small kernels in the most fervent advocate of the DP, but they will exist. We’ll never learn to satisfactorily and efficiently kill our prisoners until we shed ourselves of the humanity that makes us cringe at the very acts we are looking to condemn. And we shouldn’t. The examples of societies that have tried it serve as reminders why the very question is unanswerable.”

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Diane Dimond February 3, 2015 at 5:40 pm

Facebook Friend Valerie Kuhn writes:

“Firing squad or hanging…….”

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Diane Dimond February 3, 2015 at 5:42 pm

Facebook Friend Kenny Davis writes:

“What about that Michael Jacksons propa whatever .. it puts you out but they prolly dont wanna spend the money..i think it costs alot.”

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Diane Dimond February 3, 2015 at 5:43 pm

Facebook Friend Melissa Casey writes:

“Propofol use in executions was a “hot topic” in 2013.

>> “Its use in executions – regardless of its source – could lead to sanctions by the European Union (EU) that would threaten the U.S. supply of this indispensable drug.”
http://www.propofol-info.com/

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Diane Dimond February 3, 2015 at 5:46 pm

Noozhawk Reader dudleysharp writes:
Yes, we could use the drugs vets use, some work fine on humans. But, drug companies are saying no to human executions, even though some of their drugs are used for human euthanasia, banned by the Hippocratic Oath, when executions of humans are not.

We can’t use heroin, because it is an illegal substance.

There seems to be no problem with Florida’s protocol, which is what Oklahoma has adopted, just as there are no problems with Texas’ one drug cocktail, the preferred LI method, using pentobarbital.

The Texas drug is aquired through a compounding pharmacy, which any of the states can find.”

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Diane Dimond February 3, 2015 at 5:46 pm

Noozhawk Reader Scooter Livingston writes:

“Violating the Hippocratic Oath.”

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Diane Dimond February 4, 2015 at 2:35 pm

Facebook Friend Kurt G. Kaner writes:

“The death penalty DOES deter crime.

Proof: In 2011 Dmitry Smirnov killed a suburban Chicago women he had been stalking. He stated to police that he googled Illinois to see if they had the death penalty. It does not.

There’s your pound of flesh.

The system can be full proof. DNA – Video”

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Diane Dimond February 5, 2015 at 11:05 pm

ABQ Journal Reader XXX XXXXXX CSP writes: (anonymously)

“I read your article, “Can we agree on acceptable process for executions?” in the Albuquerque Journal, Jan 31, 2015 and thought that maybe you would be one who could make a change in the process for executions if only you knew of a completely painless and easily controlled (meaning relative safe) method of execution. First, let me explain my expertise in this area. The letters after my name stand for “Certified Safety Professional” and my job is to save lives and for this reason I don’t want my name associated in any way with executions. So, please check out my suggestion but don’t link me to this.

In the safety field we lose many people to oxygen deficiency. Confined space entry is a very hazardous occupation. A worker enters a confined space. When he doesn’t come out, a co-worker goes after him. A third worker tries to hold his breath and rescue both. All three workers die. An electrical technician leans over a electric cabinet filled with nitrogen (a common gas used to prevent fire) and is found dead in this position by fellow workers. What’s happening in these incidents? These scenarios are based on real incidents where workers have died because of oxygen deficiency. Oxygen deficiency is a lack of oxygen in the air we breathe. Normal air has about 20.9% oxygen. The Occupational Health and Safety Regulation defines oxygen deficiency as air with less than 19.5% oxygen by volume. Without the use of an oxygen monitor, a person cannot tell if the air doesn’t have enough oxygen. Some toxic gases irritate your lungs or have a taste or smell to warn you that they are present. But air that is low in oxygen has no warning properties: you can’t smell, taste, or see any difference when air doesn’t have enough oxygen. By the time you feel faint or dizzy, you may not have enough energy or alertness to escape. Working in an atmosphere with oxygen levels less than 17% can produce symptoms that might prevent you from escaping. If oxygen levels are lower than 10%, taking just one breath might make you unconscious almost immediately. Why is this? The answer? Diffusion!

Diffusion is the net movement of a substance (e.g., an atom, ion or molecule) from a region of high concentration to a region of low concentration. The word diffusion is derived from the Latin word, “diffundere”, which means “to spread out” (if a substance is “spreading out”, it is moving from an area of high concentration to an area of low concentration). A distinguishing feature of diffusion is that it results in mixing or mass transport, without requiring bulk motion (bulk flow). Thus, diffusion should not be confused with convection, or advection, which are other transport phenomena that utilize bulk motion to move particles from one place to another.
An example of a situation in which bulk flow and diffusion can be differentiated is the mechanism by which oxygen enters the body during external respiration (breathing). The lungs are located in the thoracic cavity, which is expanded as the first step in external respiration. This expansion leads to an increase in volume of the alveoli in the lungs, which causes a decrease in pressure in the alveoli. This creates a pressure gradient between the air outside the body (relatively high pressure) and the alveoli (relatively low pressure). The air moves down the pressure gradient through the airways of the lungs and into the alveoli until the pressure of the air and that in the alveoli are equal (i.e., the movement of air by bulk flow stops once there is no longer a pressure gradient). The air arriving in the alveoli has a higher concentration of oxygen than the “stale” air in the alveoli. The increase in oxygen concentration creates a concentration gradient for oxygen between the air in the alveoli and the blood in the capillaries that surround the alveoli. Oxygen then moves by diffusion, down the concentration gradient, into the blood.
The other consequence of the air arriving in alveoli is that the concentration of carbon dioxide in the alveoli decreases (air has a very low concentration of carbon dioxide compared to the blood in the body). This creates a concentration gradient for carbon dioxide to diffuse from the blood into the alveoli.
However, if the air arriving in the lungs has a concentration of oxygen at or below 10% the process is reversed! The “stale” air in the alveoli has more oxygen than the air in the lungs and what little oxygen the body has is diffused into that air and then lost when the person exhales.

So, how can oxygen deficiency be used? First, let me point out that this process is quick, painless, and as far as we in the safety field can tell, happens before the person realizes what has happened. Second, this condition is easily created, controlled, and requires no expensive or hard to obtain chemicals. Only, cheep and abundant nitrogen gas. Third, when the execution is completed the nitrogen gas is simple expelled back into the air from whence it came. Look up confined space entry on the OSHA.gov, NIH.gov, or other safety web sites to see how this condition kills.

My suggestion is:

1) In a small isolated building, build a single security cell to house the person to be executed. The entrance to this building and cell needs to be an air lock so that the doctor could enter without losing the nitrogen atmosphere. The building needs only high quality entrance type doors that minimizes the loss of air (nitrogen). Because this building is isolated the small loss of nitrogen using standard doors for the air lock does not pose a threat for oxygen deficiency in the area around the building. If one assumes a cell that is 10′ x 10′ square and 8′ tall, with a work area in front of the cell bars that is 4′ wide (10′ long & 8′ tall to match the cell), and an air lock that is 4′ wide by 8′ long and 8′ tall; then the volume of the building would be around 1400 cubic feet. It is important that this volume be small as the process is going to be a nitrogen dump into the building to create the oxygen deficient environment. Something like the old gas chambers might work but they were not made for a rapid change of atmosphere and I see no need for strapping the person into a chair.

2) A ventilation system is needed that could dump 1400 cubic feet of nitrogen into the building within a short period of time. I suggest something like 10 seconds. Remember that the normal atmosphere in the building must be released to allow the nitrogen to enter. There is no need to ensure a 100% nitrogen atmosphere because the oxygen level only needs to be reduced to 10 % or less.

3) The person being executed will lose consciousness within one or two seconds of the first breath but death will take several minutes. After some period of time (medical science can help here) a doctor, using supplied air (standard for confined space entry is a SCBA device) and determine death.

4) After death has been established, the building is then purged with normal air and the place is safe to enter.”

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