Lethal Injection

Dahlia Lithwick, one of the smartest writers on legal/Constitutional matters, has a really good article up at Slate.com about the medical and legal mess that is lethal injection.  Though there may be a lethal injection protocol that would make sense, the current one would literally be illegal if used for cats and dogs.  Why does everybody keep using it?  Because that's what they've always used and to admit that it is problematic is to admit they've been using a very flawed way of executing people all these years.  When one learns how the protocol was adopted and then passed from state to state, it is pretty damning:

Even defenders of the current protocol concede it was simply copied
from state to state, each cheerfully adopting the 1977 version cooked
up by Dr. Jay Chapman, formerly chief medical examiner in Oklahoma, who
devised the system as a hasty alternative to the firing squad. A
state-to-state game of telephone: That's how the national patchwork of
lethal-injection protocols?many developed and administered in
secret?was born. Thus, at a 1990 meeting with Texas corrections
officials to devise a protocol for Louisiana, Texas officials were
asked why they used 5 grams of sodium pentothal instead of 2 grams,
like other states. According to testimony in a Louisiana appeal, Texas'
prison pharmacy director just laughed: “When we did our first
execution, the only thing I had on hand was a 5-gram vial. And rather
than do the paperwork on wasting 3 grams, we just gave all 5.” Dr. Chapman himself recently acknowledged that it's probably time to change the method.

Less to state governments– when coming up with a new policy and looking for models, do not assume that Oklahoma or Texas actually know what they are doing.  When I lecture on federalism I point out that one of the great features is that states can learn from the successes and failures of other states.  What's kind of disturbing is for them to blindly copy deeply flawed policies just because other states are doing it.  The “everybody does it” argument is no better for a rebellious teenager than a state government, yet:

The reason the states haven't acted is one part strategic and one part inertia. As the appellants' brief in Baze
(PDF) points out, most of the states have persistently stood by their
protocols with the argument that everyone else is doing it. Kentucky
adopted Chapman's cocktail without “any independent or scientific
studies” because “other states were doing it ? on a regular basis.”

As for whether we should have the death penalty, that's another post, but it is hard to argue with Lithwick's conclusion:

If carelessness, raw politics, and inertia should be driving policy,
the current lethal-injection system is a penalogical grand slam. One
shouldn't have to be opposed to the death penalty, be soft on
criminals, or be a liberal crybaby to insist that procedures that are
hopelessly outdated and medically suspect should be fixed.

About Steve Greene
Professor of Political Science at NC State http://faculty.chass.ncsu.edu/shgreene

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