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Of pain and punishment

Concerns have been raised about Florida's lethal injection regime that should be addressed by lawmakers rather than wait for a high court ruling.

A Times Editorial
Published May 1, 2006

In the search for the most humane way to execute a prisoner, every death penalty state but one has adopted lethal injection. By injecting a prisoner with a lethal drug combination, it appears that the prisoner is put to sleep in the same way one would end the life of a dying pet. But in reality the process is quite different and potentially excruciatingly painful.

The relative cruelty of Florida's protocols for lethal injection was the subject of a lively argument before the U.S. Supreme Court on Wednesday. Serious questions were raised by the justices that should be addressed by our lawmakers sooner rather than later.

While we are opposed to the death penalty in all cases, there is no doubt that condemned killer Clarence Hill murdered Pensacola police Officer Stephen Taylor in 1982 during a bank robbery. But Hill isn't asking that his death sentence be set aside, just that a court consider whether the state's use of a three-drug protocol may constitute cruel punishment in violation of his civil rights.

Medical evidence is mounting that the procedure can cause terrific pain if not administered properly. The first drug is an anesthetic that puts the prisoner into a deep sleep, the next causes paralysis and ends all muscle movement and the third stops the heart from beating. If the anesthetic is not given in the proper dose, or in the right way, the inmate may feel the pain associated with a poison burning through his veins and then experience the searing pain of a heart attack. But because he is paralyzed there will be no outward indication of the problem.

A study in the respected British medical journal the Lancet a year ago found through autopsy data that the anesthesia wore off before the heart was stopped in 21 of 49 prisoners analyzed. Trained medical personnel are typically not used to administer the anesthesia.

During oral arguments a number of justices raised concerns over the state's lack of interest in this evidence. "Does not the state have a minimal obligation to research whether this is the most humane method?" asked Justice Anthony Kennedy, a key swing vote.

Perhaps most telling is that Florida bars the use of this three-drug protocol for euthanizing animals because it might hide the suffering of the animal as it dies. Clearly, something is wrong when a procedure is deemed too potentially painful to use on animals but not on humans.

Apparently, the resistance to modifying the lethal injection regime is that a more humane process can take longer and the witnesses should not have to wait - a consideration that should be irrelevant.

The actual issue before the high court is a procedural one: whether Hill can proceed with a civil rights action or whether his only avenue to challenge his execution method is through a habeas corpus filing - a process that is no longer open to him. Still, enough legitimate questions have been raised about Florida's lethal injection regime that state lawmakers shouldn't wait for the court to act. They have an obligation to investigate and address the issue themselves.

[Last modified May 1, 2006, 01:52:13]


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