11.13.10

Executed Like a Dog

Oklahoma has a scandalous plan for executing inmates—with a drug used on animals. Ben Crair on why the way we put our pets to sleep is more humane than most lethal injections.

News broke this week that the state of Oklahoma wanted to use a new drug in executions. The media was quick to seize on one of the drug’s other applications: It was the barbiturate used in animal euthanasia. The British press, which always loves to look aghast at America’s capital punishment, seemed to take particular delight in the story. “The state of Oklahoma is planning to execute death-row inmates with drugs intended for use on animals,” wrote The Daily Mail, while The Guardian said Oklahoma wanted “to execute condemned men with a drug commonly used to put down animals.”

Some death-penalty critics say Oklahoma’s decision shows what they see as the essential inhumanity of execution. But here’s the thing: Lawyers for death-row inmates would actually prefer to have their clients put down like family pets. It carries much less risk of pain than the standard three-drug lethal injection protocol. Oklahoma isn’t actually proposing to adopt the veterinary method: Animals are put to sleep with a single, large dose of a barbiturate called pentobarbital, while the state wants to use a smaller dose of pentobarbital to knock out patients before applying the lethal drugs. But consider the irony: When it comes to death-row inmates, dying like a dog seems like a gentle way to go.

Even the American Veterinary Medical Association’s looser standards are not met in human death chambers.

In fact, 42 states ban euthanasia, as it is practiced in execution chambers, in veterinary hospitals and animal shelters, as Ty Alper of the Death Penalty Law Center at Berkeley lays out in his paper “Anesthetizing the Public Conscience: Lethal Injection and Animal Euthanasia.” That’s because these states—including Oklahoma—do not allow the use of the second drug in the three-drug cocktail on animals. The three-drug formula, Alper writes, is “less reliable, and therefore less humane, than the method used to euthanize animals.”

In executions, that drug is pancuronium bromide, a type of curariform, or neuromuscular-blocking agent. The drug paralyzes the inmate, and it serves no real purpose in the death chamber other than to spare onlookers the sight of the prisoner twitching as he dies. That’s why we’ve evolved the elaborate three-drug protocol: The first drug anesthetizes the patient so that he’ll be numb to the effects of the second drug, which paralyzes him, and the third drug, which actually kills him.

Veterinarians object to the use of the second drug, the pancuronium bromide, because it presents as unnecessary risk of suffering. “A conscious patient who is administered pancuronium bromide will endure extreme mental distress,” Peter Pascoe, a veterinarian, told the state of California in 2009. “Specifically, a conscious patient would be aware of the need to breathe, the inability to do so and the terrifying experience of suffocation.” He went on to argue that “in a veterinary context, pancuronium bromide is wholly superfluous to the goal of humane euthanasia. Its only effect would mask any suffering endured by the patient.”

The Humane Society agrees. According to its Euthanasia Training Manual, “It is our moral and ethical duty to ensure we work to end these practices: drowning, poisoning, shooting, gassing, or injecting animals with curare-based or paralytic substances.” (That final category includes pancuronium bromide.) The American Veterinary Medical Association’s Guidelines on Euthanasia are a bit more cautious: They come with a red-ink warning, which says the guidelines have been “widely misinterpreted,” and that “the report never mentions pancuronium bromide.” It approves of the use of the paralyzing agent “potassium chloride in conjunction with prior general anesthesia,” given that “the personnel performing this technique are trained and knowledgeable in anesthetic techniques, and are competent in assessing anesthetic depth.”

However, even the AVMA’s looser standards are not met in human death chambers: Anesthesiologists rarely monitor the executions (doctors generally refuse), and the test of anesthetic depth on inmates is often no more complicated than having a prison guard or paramedic shake the prisoner in between the first and second drugs to see if he wakes up.

Without medical professionals to monitor the effectiveness of the first drug, it’s impossible to tell whether the inmate is suffering during the administration of the second and third drugs during lethal injections. That’s why advocates for death-row inmates argue that it’d be much safer just to execute prisoners using a single large dose of a barbiturate like pentobarbital, as we commonly do with pets. The method, which knocks the patient out and eventually causes cardiac arrest, carries almost no risk of pain. Alper points out that “Euthanasia in shelters is performed by shelter workers who are not formally trained in veterinary medicine. By developing a procedure with no risk of pain, and a wide margin for error, the veterinary community has accounted for the difficulty posed by relatively untrained personnel administering the lethal procedure.”

So far, Ohio and Washington are the only states to actually adopt a one-drug execution formula. The other 33 death-penalty states all use the three-drug formula as their main method of execution. They’re incredibly reluctant to change their protocols, because doing so opens up new avenues for legal challenges by condemned inmates.

The irony of it all, as Alper points out, is that we developed the three-drug protocol in the first place because we feared a one-drug method would appear as though we were treating people no better than animals. Thirty years later, the opposite turns out to be true.

Ben Crair is the Deputy News Editor of The Daily Beast.