Lethal injection under fire: Should executions be painless?

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Two men on death row in Kentucky are going to court to try to declare lethal injections a form of “cruel and unusual punishment,” restrictions against which are found in the Eighth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. The men claim that the chemicals used in lethal injections cause unbearable pain.

Currently, most states have laws about the death penalty. Methods of execution range from hanging to lethal injection, with several other methods in between. The petition of the Kentucky inmates will be heard by the Supreme Court, but the only method of execution questioned will be lethal injections — the death penalty itself will not be examined.

All forms of capital punishment are brutal — ending someone’s life has never been considered a light punishment — but if prisoners are sentenced to death, lethal injections are probably the least cruel and unusual method available. When people are sentenced to death by lethal injection, they receive three separate injections. The first puts the inmate to sleep, like an anesthetic. The second paralyzes the inmate, and the third injection stops the inmate’s heart. If the execution isconducted properly, the prisoner should die soon after the process begins.

Unfortunately, many situations arise in which the process proceeds incorrectly. The injections are generally administered by prison staff, not by doctors. This means that there is often a lack of training, and mistakes can be made more easily. For example, if the injections are accidentally inserted into muscle tissue rather than into a vein, extreme pain will occur. If the inmate was a drug user, veins are difficult to find. In cases such as these, the execution process results in severe pain.

Some medical studies have reported, however, that even when administered properly, the drugs cause pain. The second drug injected only paralyzes the muscles, not the nerves or the brain. Therefore, the prisoners might feel pain but be unable to show it. The first drug, too, is often improperly administered, allowing the inmates to be conscious during their executions. Unfortunately, complications do arise during executions, regardless of which method is employed. The complications from lethal injections, however, are the least “cruel and unusual” among them.

When other methods of execution go wrong, the results can be far worse. For example, when people are hanged, if the prisoner is too light or the rope is the wrong length, the prisoner will die slowly and painfully because his or her neck will not snap. There is even a risk of decapitation. With the electric chair, prisoners are often not killed after only one jolt, and their eyes can pop out of their sockets and onto their cheeks. In some states, gas chambers (similar to those used in Nazi concentration camps) and firing squads are still used as legal methods of execution.

Lethal injection is the most common execution method in the U.S., and arguably the least cruel. While no method of execution is necessarily painless, lethal injections have the best chance of succeeding quickly. Other methods of execution can last for hours, and the prisoners are forced to suffocate or fry.

Besides, executions shouldn’t necessarily be painless. When a man (or woman) is sentenced to death, a certain amount of pain should be anticipated by both the executioner and the executed. It is unrealistic to expect a complete absence of pain. If executions were supposed to be painless, they probably wouldn’t be a form of punishment for things like premeditated murder. The question of what is “cruel and unusual punishment” rests with the amount of pain caused: How much is too much? The two inmates petitioning the court are hoping that the judges decide that the pain caused by lethal injections is too much.

Looking at this case in particular, it’s hard to believe that the prisoners really think lethal injections amount to cruel and unusual punishment. Their actions may just be desperate attempts to escape the death penalty altogether. One of the prisoners was scheduled to be executed earlier this week, and may only be resisting what was going to be his certain demise. While his execution is delayed, however, it is unlikely that it will be canceled. With the crimes committed by the men — both are convicted of double homicides — it is improbable that the courts will decide to lighten their punishment.

The men might, in fact, end up with a result they dislike more — a death more painful than the one offered by the lethal injections.