Just Reward Or 'Cruel And Unusual Punishment'? US Supreme Court Ponders Death Penalty

The US death penalty debate has been given a new lease on life now that the Supreme Court is examining the question of whether the preferred method of execution, lethal injection, is in fact constitutional.

Everyone thought the Lucasville, Ohio, execution was over when Joseph Clark suddenly raised his head and groaned: "It's not working!"

Appalled, the executioners closed the curtain that separated them from the witnesses and hastily began giving the murderer a second poisonous injection. The curtain was opened again 35 minutes later, but the spectacle was not yet over. Clark tried to say something again and again. His 2006 execution took 86 minutes from beginning to death.

Reports suggest US executioners have not yet mastered the technique of administering lethal injections. At a prison death chamber in Starke, Florida, for example, a convicted murderer strapped down in the execution chamber last year gasped for air "like a fish on dry land" before he died 34 minutes after receiving the injection.

Ever since the death penalty was re-introduced in 1976, 929 people have been executed by lethal injection in the US. But out of these executions, "about 40 were botched," complains William Lanier, an anesthesiologist and the editor-in-chief of the medical journal Mayo Clinic Proceedings. The US Supreme Court is set to reach a decision before next summer as to whether or not lethal injections constitute "cruel and unusual punishment" -- in which case they would be unconstitutional.

The Supreme Court is looking into what is by far the most frequently used method of execution, one routinely used -- until now -- in 37 of the 38 federal states where the death penalty is legal.

But the Supreme Court's investigation will likely lead to a near-total suspension of executions for the time being. Oklahoma's attorney general, for example, has called on the responsible state court to order no new executions. And even in Texas, where the death penalty was enforced especially severely until now, a court suspended a planned execution in early October.

The controversy over lethal injections reveals US citizens' contradictory relationship to the death penalty. On the one hand, most US citizens are in favor of executing convicted murderers. But to placate public sensitivities, the execution must not seem archaic and should be as painless as possible.

The Search For A "Humane" Method

US executioners have been searching for a "humane" execution method for decades. The firing squads once used in Utah fell out of favor, as they were considered too brutal. Hanging was also rejected: If the drop is too short, the hanged person may continue twitching on the rope for up to 45 minutes. If it is too long, it can snap the condemned man's head off.

Death in the gas chamber takes too long. When Donald Harding was gassed in Arizona in 1992, even the attorney general -- who was present at the execution -- had to throw up. And as for the electric chair, it is controversial because it has repeatedly led to fires and burns. In Florida, the heads of two criminals caught fire, and often the chair roasted the bodies of those convicted to death to the point that the corpses had to be left to cool down before they could be removed.

When the Oklahoma electric chair needed expensive repairs in 1977, the State Medical Examiner Dr. A. Jay Chapman was charged with developing an alternative. Chapman wrote down the names of three substances: first the narcotic thiopental natrium, injected to prevent the convict from feeling pain, then the muscle relaxant pancuronium bromide, meant to ensure his body does not twitch, and finally potassium chloride, which stops his heart.

But the substances only work as planned when they are properly injected into the convict's vein -- which is precisely where things have gone wrong recently.

Many executioners only perform an execution every couple of years and are not adequately trained to use the syringes. And so they occasionally inject one or all of the substances into the convict's muscles, instead of into his veins. Or they mix the three substances together until they clot.

Such bungling results in the muscle relaxant taking effect too quickly, so that the convict dies a slow death by asphyxiation while fully conscious. In other cases, the potassium chloride takes effect first, causing the convict to die a highly painful death.

Given these risks, some are now demanding that doctors do the executioners' work. "If you were to be executed, wouldn't you rather have a competent and compassionate person who quickly finds the vein?" asks Boston Children's Hospital anesthesiologist David Waisel.

But Waisel is an exception. His proposal violates the medical profession's code of ethics and ignores certain realities: Many convicts are obese and have spent years injecting drugs while in prison, to the point that even the best doctor may be unable to find a suitable vein.

And so many doctors would prefer the death penalty were abolished altogether. No matter what the Supreme Court decides, University of Miami surgeon Leonidas Koniaris is already convinced lethal injections are an execution method that cannot be reformed: "They are a revolting perversion of an instrument of healing."