Lethal injection worries stir US death penalty debate
By Carey Gillam
KANSAS CITY, Missouri (Reuters) – As the mother of a
convicted murderer, Linda Taylor feels the nationwide debate
over the death penalty in both her conscience and her heart.
Less than six months ago, the Kansas City grandmother sat
outside a prison cell and said good-bye to her 39-year-old son
Michael, prepared to see him put to death with a dose of lethal
drugs in Missouri’s execution chamber.
“That was the worst time in our family’s life. Waiting,
praying,” said Taylor. “The crime he did was horrendous. But
why do we kill people … to show that killing people is
A late reprieve spared Michael Taylor, who pleaded guilty
to the 1989 rape and murder of a Kansas City school girl, and
he remains alive on the state’s death row.
And though initially it seemed only a technical delay, all
executions in Missouri are now blocked because of evidence that
state executioners might be inadvertently causing inmates to
feel undue pain when they are killed.
The revelations are contributing to a broad reexamination
of the death penalty across the country. Indeed, a series of
recent court rulings in several states, along with new concerns
raised by doctors and lawyers about lethal injection — the
most-used method of execution in the United States — has
raised the debate to a new intensity.
Given the developments, some legal scholars speculate that
the Supreme Court may ultimately reimpose a moratorium on
capital punishment as it did in 1972. That ended in 1976 and
currently 38 states have death penalty statutes on the books.
“We’re in the middle of a slugfest,” said New York
University of Law School professor and capital punishment
proponent Robert Blecker.
Recent polls show a majority of Americans, about 65
percent, support capital punishment, a level relatively
unchanged over the last few years, but significantly lower than
the 80 percent support level in the mid-1990s.
Americans are increasingly favoring life without parole for
murderers, polls are showing, and the number of people
sentenced to death has dropped 55 percent from 1999.
“Sentiments are changing,” said Death Penalty Information
Center director Richard Dieter. “The evidence is very strong.”
The advent of DNA testing that has proven innocent people
have been wrongly convicted, along with evidence of
inconsistent applications of the death penalty, are chief among
the factors leading to fewer executions, according to Dieter.
But concerns about lethal injection are further feeding
those doubts and forcing people who have considered lethal
injection as an ethical, pain-free method of execution to
evaluate anew how far public punishment should go.
The issue rose to the forefront last year when a British
medical journal published research showing dozens of U.S.
inmates had been given anesthetic at lower levels than required
for surgery and that guidelines in several states were flawed.
Without proper anesthesia, potassium chloride administered to
stop the heart can cause excruciating pain.
The inmates could have been unable to show their suffering,
the study found, because of the paralyzing effect of another of
the drugs commonly used in lethal injection executions, which
typically take two to five minutes to kill the inmate.
“Some people (have been persuaded) that what appears to be
a very painless death is as gruesome as the electric chair or
the gas chamber,” said David R. Dow, professor at the
University of Houston Law Center.
Lawyers for death row inmates are increasingly using the
concerns about pain to argue that lethal injection violates the
constitutional ban on cruel and unusual punishment. Such
appeals have delayed executions in several states, including
Arkansas, California and Florida.
The fears gained further standing when the U.S. Supreme
Court on June 12 said death row inmates could challenge the
constitutionality of lethal injection as a civil rights
Earlier this month, lethal injection fears led Virginia to
use an electric chair to execute 27-year-old Brandon Hedrick
because Hedrick feared injection might be a more painful way to
die, according to his attorney.
Back in Missouri, U.S. District Judge Fernando Gaitan has
ordered the state department of corrections to make a series of
improvements to its execution protocol, including employing a
board-certified anesthesiologist to ensure that the drugs used
in lethal injections were properly prepared.
The action came after the doctor who had been overseeing
Missouri executions admitted he was dyslexic, often mixing up
numbers, and after Taylor’s attorneys discovered records
showing doses of anesthesia were half what they should have
been for some executions, including the dose that awaited
In response to the judge’s order, Missouri has said it
cannot find an anesthesiologist willing to participate and
plans to appeal. The American Medical Association this month
reminded doctors that it views participation in executions to
be a violation of medical ethics.
“This is unprecedented. We’ve never had executions blocked
to this extent,” said Missouri Department of Corrections
spokesman Brian Hauswirth.
Taylor and his family hope his execution will be
permanently stayed. But for some, concerns about a painful
death for convicted murderers remain irrelevant.
“So they suffer a little pain,” said Gladys Wimberley of
Winchester, Mo., who says she will not support a politician who
opposes the death penalty. “There are a lot of us out here who
feel that way. If you commit anything as heinous as a murder,
then you should die too.”